Thursday, January 8, 2015

Retribution in Ravnica, Interlude II: New Slang

The Path of Phenax was deceitful as its namesake master must be, Venser decided, as he nearly twisted his ankle on yet another blackened tree root that had appeared from nowhere. Cursing and limping, the artificer sidestepped and almost tilted over a dropoff that had also suddenly materialized. Grey mists that hinted at a bottomless death loomed up at him and Venser dizzily stumbled backward, right into the arms of his somewhat more sure-footed companion.

“Easy! None of the others are acting this way--you’ve got to get it together.” Elspeth’s desperate whisper was sharp in his ear as Venser struggled to comply. The warrior steadied him with an arm around his waist and a hand on his shoulder, her movements brusque and inhuman in their brevity. Venser realized she was just copying what she saw the noston around them doing. The zombie-like “returned” seemed to possess souls but no identity or memory, and their motions came off as mechanical and rehearsed… pantomimes lacking real intent or feeling. So Elspeth had tried to grab hold of him as though it were a natural reaction in the moment, but not as if she actually cared if he fell to his death or not.

“Not winning any praises from the minstrels for my acting, am I? You, on the other hand, are doing a convincing job.”

“It’s a life or death situation,” Elspeth hissed irritably, her bored posture at odds with her vehement tone. Venser felt like laughing, and struggled to keep himself from falling into one of the giggling fits that tempted him lately whenever he was under extreme stress.

Venser straightened himself and took a trudging step forward, trying to blend in with a small group of noston that had just passed them. Ex-military, by the looks of them. Venser hoped he and Elspeth could pass for ex-nobility, instinctually staying close to an honor guard.

“Good idea,” Elspeth whispered as she stepped up close to him, draping her arm over his in the fashion she’d seen ladies do in Meletis. Venser inclined his head rigidly in response, noticing the path seemed to smooth and behave itself with the group of returned breaking trail for them.

Maybe it can sense our falseness.
A memory flashed through Venser’s mind. Liliana, laughing, head pillowed on the rough volcanic rock of one of Mirrodin’s mountains. “Just fake it till you make it, Vense,” she’d said, fire reflected in her eyes, sweat plastering her hair across her forehead. Then she’d handed him his screwdriver.

The path quaked beneath them. Elspeth gasped, nearly falling as a fissure opened up in the middle of the trail. The noston ahead shouted meaningless words and jumped to either side of the path. Venser jerked Elspeth to his side of the fissure, clutching her close. All Venser could hear was the pounding of his heart in his head. He couldn’t teleport, that would give them away for sure. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the fissure closed and the rumbling ground calmed and stilled.

Grumbling, the returned in front of them waved their spears and started forward again, motioning Elspeth and Venser to follow. Apparently Venser had been right, and their instincts as soldiers also dictated they protect the “higher class” of hangers-on that had attached themselves to the party.

Instinct. That was it.

Venser turned his head slightly towards Elspeth. “Try not to think about anything. That’s been my mistake. Stay in the moment,” he whispered.

Elspeth squeezed his arm in understanding. The path swooped upwards, promising what looked to Venser like endless amounts of scenic bleakness.

How the hell am I going to keep my mind off of everything?

Forcing himself to keep his eyes on the path ahead, Venser began counting footsteps.

“Now that you’ve reached me, tell me, my dear--what kind of harbinger are you?”

Liliana stopped, one foot on the top of the ziggurat of stairs that held up the dais of the throne room of Erebos, God of the Dead.

After some thought Liliana said, “The good kind.”

“Trite.” The god’s fingertip tapped the handle of his impossibly long whip. Erebos was reclining in his ebony throne in a posture fit for immortalization in a tapestry or marble fresco.

“But sincere.” Liliana’s gaze traveled openly down the body of the god, taking in everything there was to see.

“Then what good things do you foretell, mortal?”

“Only the kind of good things you would choose for yourself, if you could so choose,” Liliana said softly, raising her eyes to stare reverently from beneath lowered lashes into the void-like eyes of the god.

Erebos snorted in a very ungodlike manner. “You are a curious sort of oracle,” he mused aloud.

“Very curious,” Liliana affirmed. She allowed a small, respectful smile to grace her features as she stepped gracefully forward so both her feet were atop the dais. Erebos showed her great favor (she presumed) by reducing his initial sky-filling magnitude so he approximated a somewhat humanoid size… though he still dwarfed the dark mage and would have towered over her had he been standing.

“Thank you, my king,” Liliana performed a courtly curtsy she trumped up from somewhere in her girlhood.

“Theros is not your home, and you are certainly not one of my minions. Why is it you name me your king?”

“My profession is death. It merely felt appropriate.”

“If I am your king, you should be on your knees.”

Liliana knelt. She kept her eyes on the floor and heard, rather than saw, Erebos sit up and lean forward.

“Despite your demure demeanor, I sense that you’re here in the capacity of deal-maker… An assassin that can be bought off, an ally that offers with one hand and takes with the other… Tell me, little oracle. Tell me now. What is it that you want from me?”

“A favor. A single favor for a friend. And, if my lord Erebos sees fit to bestow them, blessings.”

Erebos leaned back in his throne once again. “And who is to receive these blessings, little oracle?”


Somewhere around the Third River the stench of death had become commonplace to the point of being stiflingly depressing, and Venser had decided he didn’t care if he ever saw another piece of gold in his life. In fact, the artificer had a brief flash of fantasy in which he swallowed whole handfuls of the stuff until his stomach exploded and he had successfully put himself out of his current misery.

Elspeth was faring better, her patience for the noston apparently deeper than the artificer’s. Yet she too was tired of the charade, and physical fatigue was catching up with her faster and faster the closer they got to their goal.

After the incident with the returned chickens, Venser and Elspeth had found themselves elected the unofficial royalty of the motley group of zombies that had aggregated on the trek along the Path of Phenax.

“If I have to resolve one more dispute about severed limbs, I’m going to turn around and surrender myself to Erebos,” Venser said hoarsely to Elspeth when they had a moment alone. The champion tilted her head in sympathy but could only shrug.

“I just stopped two of them from strangling each other over a piece of clay the size of a booger,” she said tiredly.

Venser burst out laughing, and the two walkers immediately found themselves the center of attention for over three dozen gold-masked zombies who’d turned to stare at the source of the foreign sound. Venser rolled his glamour-blackened eyes but quickly changed his laugh to a loud guttural growl. He also began to wave his arms frantically, and then to stomp his feet for no reason at all. As a grand finale he raised his hand and pointed vehemently in several completely random directions.

The noston changed their postures of suspicion to those of abeyance, bowing to their “king” and hurrying to do whatever it was they thought he’d just commanded. Some even nodded sagely to each other, as if Venser had “said” something profoundly wise. The artificer sighed to himself and smacked a palm against the forehead of his golden mask to relieve his irritation.

He realized his stupidity too late. “Ow!” he cursed.

“Stop that!” Elspeth hissed. “You’re just going to hurt yourself.”

“I can’t take it. Nothing they do makes any sense. Why would laughter put them on edge, but complete babble makes them behave?”

Elspeth bit her lip behind her own mask. A fleeting wish that Liliana was there to see to Venser’s concerns crossed her mind. The artificer was a dear friend to the warrior, but under stress he could become really, really whiny. Elspeth didn’t know the necromancer very well, but for some reason she felt pretty sure that Liliana would have come up with methods to deal with Venser’s… tendencies.

“Just keep going,” Elspeth finally gritted when she could maintain a calm tone of voice. It was a soldier’s solution, and the only one she had.

Venser seemed to realize he was burdening her, for he merely nodded and began to massage his temples as he walked. He kept silent, but his posture was tense and strained.

The waters of the Third River were shallow, and they were already coming to the far side of the crossing. Their steps created pallid froth, churning up the grayish sand as they passed. Ahead of them, the most militaristic of their group of returned were marching in smart formation up onto the beach. A few others, dressed as peasants, had spread out to the right and left and appeared to be attempting to fish. They cast nets too ragged to catch anything repeatedly into the water, pulling them back with fervor and eagerly searching for prizes. One moaned and held up a piece of seaweed in triumph.

Elspeth shook her head. Her white cloak was dirty from the pilgrimage, grey as the clay the noston prized so much. A grey queen for a grey world she thought. Fitting. The champion turned her gaze to the sky and tried to stir some hope in her heart. The sandy landscape was changing to something more rocky, the washed-out vistas fading into skies blood-hued. Elspeth had noted earlier that the Rivers and their surrounding lands seemed to correspond to different Gods, one for each of the five primaries. The Third had been a sad maritime parody--Thassa’s domain. It seemed the next leg of their journey, the Fourth, would pass through lands mimicking the nature of Purphoros, God of the Forge, fire and mountains.

Two of the returned soldiers in front of Elspeth had stopped, breaking away from the advance guard to assist Elspeth over a particularly rough part of the trail. Elspeth stifled a giggle at their pointless chivalry. It was all just muscle memory, she reasoned. At least the Path of Phenax seemed to have accepted her and Venser much as the noston had--the perils of the trail had become much milder the further they got from Erebos’s realm. Either she and the artificer were becoming better at impersonating returned, or the presence of real zombies was masking their falseness… Or, perhaps Liliana was having success in her dealings with Erebos…

Maybe all three. Elspeth brushed the musings from her mind. She paused, turning to wait for Venser. Her returned guards stopped with her, and Elspeth noted one was a satyr and the other a minotaur. Behind Venser, two more soldiers brought up the rear of the party, both cyclopes. I could have used such fearsome allies in life, Elspeth thought ruefully.

The artificer trudged up to her over the rocky path. “It’s getting warmer,” he grunted.

Elspeth knew he was making an effort to say it as a statement, not a complaint. She couldn’t help but smile at her friend behind her mask.

She linked her arm with his once more and turned forward. “And it’s going to get much hotter,” she said matter-of-factly. “I think we’re about to enter the River realm dedicated to the god of fire.”

Venser groaned loudly, and Elspeth’s wayward giggle was drowned out by the rousing marching tune that suddenly commenced around them, lusty nonsense rhythmically pouring forth from the throats of the noston who thought that their king’s bellyaching had been an order for them to sing.

Liliana’s eyes fluttered open to the scent of lavender and black pepper, and the sound of the wind. She turned her head slightly, casting her eyes upward. Whorls of stars moved in the night sky as if caught in a gentle breeze that pushed and pulled them into capricious constellations just for the fun of it.

The black mage smiled weakly, taking a deep breath that pushed her bare breasts into something cool and hard beneath her. Still looking at the stars, Liliana blinked slowly and let sleep fall away, to be replaced by a lazy consciousness that told her not to move, yet.

She was lying naked on top of a god, and it wasn’t just a superlative expression for the man’s physique. Liliana trailed her fingers languidly along the muscular arm that extended from the torso beneath her, listening quietly to Erebos’ heartbeat--or whatever it was that pulsed within his chest.

The god’s other arm was draped across her lower back, his hand cupped possessively around her bare hip, fingers digging into her flesh even as he slept. Liliana shifted experimentally--and winced at the sudden ache that lanced through and across her exposed shoulders. Keeping still, Liliana’s thoughts wandered back to a particular part of their lovemaking… when Erebos’ infamous scourge snapped down again and again onto her naked back, the lash leaving unforgiving kisses of scarlet across her alabaster skin.

Liliana sighed appreciatively. It had been quite the workout, sexually speaking. Decades of being worshipped as the sad god in the shadow of Heliod had apparently given Erebos a lot of angst to work through, and Liliana had been more than happy to let the God of Death get his therapy in her arms… and between her legs.

Fuck a god. Check.

Speaking of “between the legs”... ! Liliana mused, a dark smile on her face. It had turned out that Erebos was stunningly endowed in that area, too. From what Elspeth had told her, Liliana could only assume that it meant there were pockets of Erebos-worshipping men and women all across Theros who devoutly believed the God of Death was well hung.

Logically, it also meant the Therans believed Erebos to be a good kisser, pretty kinky, a demanding but fair lover, naturally aggressive and dominant but with a deep emotional core, and with impeccable personal hygiene and the stamina one would expect from an immortal.

Sounds like the formula for a zib-store romantic antihero. And me the luckier. Liliana chuckled and forced herself to stretch, letting the burn of her whip-marks rise and subside without a whimper, the pain flaring but then dying down and sinking into her flesh to feed the flames of her soul.

Wonder what the Therans fantasize about the other gods... Liliana suspected that with minor superficial differences, they’d all turn out to be more or less the same. People, and their desires, were so predictable. The necromancer giggled, imagining acolytes and devotees in temples all over Theros spending lust-filled nights pleasuring themselves to thoughts of their respective favorite gods.

“You’re awake early.” Erebos whispered right on cue, lifting a strand of her raven hair and letting his elegant fingers slide through it.

Liliana turned her head to face the dark god, smiling with satisfaction, her eyes warm beneath her lowered lashes.

“Just enjoying the view.” Liliana chuckled to herself. I know I’ve read that somewhere.

“So now that I’ve had you, you expect I’ll let your friend--the other ‘planeswalker’--just walk out of my realm, hm?” Erebos reached down and grasped Liliana’s chin, twisting her head up to look at him.

“Of course,” Liliana grinned.

“And why should I, little oracle?”

“Because I gave you something she never would have.”

“And why not just bring her back here, and take what I want from her too?”

Because the Therans don’t believe you’re a rapist, idiot, Liliana thought. She kept her smile sweet and submissive.

“Because you’re satisfied with what you’ve taken from me,” Liliana said confidently. “And because I can truly be yours. You know that she will always be one of Heliod’s creatures.”

Erebos stiffened at the mention of his rival’s name. He moved his other hand from Liliana’s rump to behind his head, propping himself up on the pillows. He regarded her calculatingly, smoke wafting coldly from the corners of his black eyes.

After several minutes of tense silence, during which Liliana never broke the god’s gaze and kept the fires of adoration burning fiercely in her eyes, Erebos finally nodded.

“Something is amiss about all this, little oracle,” he said softly, and Liliana was surprised to hear him say it but didn’t break character. “As though you know too much…” Erebos rose to a seated position, and reached down to gently draw her up with both his long-nailed hands, into his lap.

“But I accept this.” The God of Death leaned in close to her face, and suddenly Liliana felt a warmth emanating from him where there had only been chill before. Deep within his eyes that were like two abysses in a mask of clay, Liliana saw a momentary flicker--just a waver, really, as though the deepest black of space had taken a long-awaited breath, and then exhaled…

But then the flat emptiness was back. “You are right. I will kiss you goodbye, and ask nothing else,” Erebos said in a voice like wind over silk, barely audible. Liliana could only stare as he lowered his face to hers, wanting to say something but finding that nothing fit.

He kissed her. His lips were cold, and her heart was empty. Just as she’d expected.

They’d reached the Fifth River at last, and Venser’s grasp on his sanity had thinned to the point he was wondering if it had been worth it to come to Theros to rescue Elspeth. Perhaps he should have just stayed on Ravnica, where the most serious problem was the chance of walking in on one of Ral and Liliana’s trysts. At least he could just turn around and shut the door on that mess… here, the problems were absurd and inescapable. Venser was surprised to find himself thinking that even the idea of accidentally seeing Ral’s flaccid penis one more time was preferable to what he was doing now.

“Don’t look down,” Elspeth muttered, her voice strained. Venser tried, but his eyes wouldn’t obey him.

Oh. They were walking over a bridge of dead bodies.

And the noston were picking off any parts and pieces and tidbits they found interesting.

They found a lot of things interesting. Venser watched in silent, terrible fascination as one of the returned soldiers plucked out a corpse’s eyeball, licked it, and put it in his belt pouch.

“I’m going to throw up,” the artificer whispered to Elspeth matter-of-factly.

“Don’t you dare!” the champion hissed back, grabbing his arm with a warning squeeze and shaking him to make her point. “It’ll give us away!”

“Good, then they can kill us and be done with it.”

“Venser--” Elspeth’s voice was laced with impatient rebuke. She was on edge, too, barely keeping her feelings in check, and it was only thanks to her soldier’s sensibilities. If her companion made one more complaint…

“Fine. There, I swallowed it instead.” Venser thumped his chest as if clearing a blockage from his esophagus. Elspeth stared at him, at a loss for words. Was he joking? Did he just actually swallow his own puke?

Venser eyed his old friend curiously. She looked like she actually believed he’d just thrown up in his mouth. The warrior grimaced in disgust and turned away from him, her soiled white cloak snapping at her heels as she marched quickly over the rest of the distance across the bridge. Venser sighed, trailing after the military woman. Liliana would have made some kind of semen-blowjob joke, and then hit him in the gut so he actually did throw up.

Great--now I’m pining after being sucker-punched. Venser chastised himself as he took his final step off the gruesome bridge, giddy to be on solid ground again with no more Rivers ahead…

A movement to the east caught the artificer’s eye. He heard the noston shouting hoarsely, alarm in their senseless words, and dropped to a knee behind some rocks. As quickly as it had risen the returned’s warning died down, and Venser saw a gigantic, monstrous shape looming behind the crags further along the Fifth. Silhouetted by the eerie greenish light of the river, the shape seemed to glide over the water in perfect silence.

Venser almost squealed when he felt a hand on his. It was Elspeth. She put a finger to the lips of her golden mask, then leaned in close to his ear.

“Athreos. The boatman. God of Passage,” she mouthed. Venser nodded, even though he had no idea what she was talking about. Squinting through the mists, Venser could make out the forms of their party of noston, hidden in various places further up the trail. They were nearly at the end of the Path of Phenax. This ‘Athreos’ must function as some kind of guardian or sentry.

The boatman was crossing to the opposite side of the Fifth River. Venser cast the creature a last glance, catching a glimpse of ornate, tattered scarves the size of galleon sails and an insect-like body that sparkled with stars and chartreuse nebulae. It seemed to be carrying some kind of paddle.

Athreos vanished into the deep fog on the side of the river from which they’d just come, and Venser heard the returned stirring from their hiding places. Elspeth stood and offered him a hand up.

“We’re almost there,” she said gently. “Think you can make it?”

Venser nodded, a little ashamed of his earlier bouts of whining and impatience. “As long as you promise I don’t have to give my heart away this time,” he said lightly, hoping Elspeth would think the reference to their Mirrodin misadventure was amusing.

She just looked at him.

Oh well, I tried. Venser shrugged and held out his arm for her. “Right, almost there. Care to escape the underworld now, my queen?”

Elspeth took his arm, shaking her head. Venser was still a mystery to her. Together, they climbed the gradual ascent on the last leg of the Path. Elspeth felt her heart hammering in her chest. The thought of feeling sunlight on her skin and standing once more amongst the green of growing things… of being so close to attaining life once more, of having the chance to find Daxos, of seeing Ajani again... was almost harder to bear than the horrors they’d seen on their pilgrimage.

Flanked on all sides by their honor guard of returned, artificer and champion topped the last rise of their pilgrimage. Ahead, the Path of Phenax culminated in a small courtyard, the trail abruptly coming to an end in a plain circle of grey stone. The courtyard was an island, surrounded on all sides by five waterfalls that flowed upwards. The ground appeared to be made of night sky, making one terrified to step off the path for fear of falling into neverending space. Looking up, Elspeth and Venser discovered the sky was now an overhead view of the plane of Theros.

“Disorienting,” Elspeth murmured, looking around uneasily.

“I think it’s cute. You did say this Phenax is the God of Deception, right?” Venser felt strange and uncharacteristically euphoric, like he’d just spent half an hour sniffing gnome fumes.

Elspeth nodded. She was more than slightly worried that they hadn’t encountered Phenax himself yet. She’d assumed that he would’ve noticed two walkers in his domain, and would have come to investigate already.

The returned were eagerly pushing forward, driven by some kind of animal instinct. Careful not to fall off the edge of the trail, they rushed into the courtyard. One by one, each chose a waterfall based on some unseen impetus, jumped into the rushing water, and was sucked upwards into the sky until they disappeared.

“That easy, huh?” Elspeth wondered aloud, looking over her shoulder.

“Why so nervous?” Venser chided playfully. “Waiting for an invitation?” He reached over suddenly and picked Elspeth up, as if about to carry her over a bridal threshold.

“Venser!” Elspeth exploded, kicking her legs and trying to get free of the artificer’s grip. “Knock it off, why are you so damn giddy all of a sudden?” Venser tittered and didn’t put her down. He looked around the clearing intently.

“Dunno. Just happy to be done with this godsforsaken journey, is all. Do you feel like someone else is here?”

At Venser’s words, Elspeth froze. “No, no, I think we’re alone…”

The last of the noston was splashing into a waterfall. It was the satyr that had guarded Elspeth most of the way along the Path. Elspeth felt suddenly vulnerable without her returned soldiers, and had the irrational urge to call them all back as if she was truly their queen.

“Well we might as well get you topside,” Venser was saying, striding across the part of the Path that crossed starry ground. Elspeth glanced down nervously at the dropoff on either side of the paved trail, her hands unconsciously twisting themselves into Venser’s tunic.

“Ha, don’t worry, you. I’m pretty surefooted--as long as Lil’s not here to grab my ass or something…” Venser chuckled and Elspeth was not at all reassured. By the time they reached the stone circle in the middle of the nyx island, she was sweating. Venser finally put her down.

But as he did, his hands didn’t leave her arms. Elspeth glanced up, and saw with mounting fright that two pinpricks of blue light were visible in his eyes that had been completely blacked out by Liliana’s glamour just a few seconds earlier.

Venser’s grip tightened. Elspeth reached up to brush off his hands. “Stop. You’re hurting me,” she said, trying to stay calm.

“Oh, sorry, I meant… todothisinstead…” Venser relaxed his grip and his fingertips began to glow. Elspeth realized what was happening a half second later and called a blocking spell to mind, but it was a half second too late--she felt the spell violently ripped from her just as she was reaching for the mana.

That didn’t feel like Venser she thought, fighting panic as she sought to physically resist the magic that snaked up her body. Black tendrils of pain coursed up from the ground, leeching strength from every place they touched her. Elspeth screamed in outrage and agony, instinctively praying for Heliod’s blessing. Of course there was no answer. Every defensive white spell she brought to the fore of her consciousness was shredded the moment she thought of it; and within seconds she was standing immobile, tethered to the ground in black magic, exhausted and panting like a snared wolf.

So close… Elspeth thought with despair, her eyes rolling up to look at the Theros skyscape, and felt the dark bonds tighten around her, making it hard to breathe. I’m going to fail again. Elspeth felt the need to weep start to well up in her chest like a crushing tide. Venser was standing stock-still before her, hands slightly raised, the strange motes of blue still glowing in his blackened eyes and illuminating his gold mask.

“Venser!” Elspeth shrieked in desperation. “Do something. Fight it! Whatever--whoever--it is, fight it, goddamn you! Fight!”

There was a dry laugh that came from right next to Elspeth’s shoulder. She startled in her bonds, feeling cold sweat roll down her back and between her breasts.

“Feisty when she’s trapped, isn’t she?” The voice was airy but had a slight echo, as if spoken from multiple mouths at once. Black smoke coalesced behind Venser, pouring out of his ears and from between the seam of his lips. The smoke swirled, thickened, and finally distilled itself into a tangible shape.

A deathly pale arm draped itself across Venser’s shoulders as if they were old friends. Bloodless lips curved upwards to give Elspeth a falsely benign smile.

“Ah, the renowned Ms. Tirel. Well met, champion.”

Elspeth gritted her teeth. If I cannot pray to Heliod, who then? Erebos, since we’re at the edge of his realm? He betrayed me before, but maybe since Liliana...

“You’re a planeswalker. Why are you hostile towards us?” Elspeth decided to pray in general, to all fifteen gods she was aware of, and hope to catch the ear of whoever wasn’t busy at the moment.

The ghastly looking walker put two skinny fingers to its lips and tittered like a schoolgirl. “Hostile? Me? I love everyone… especially beautiful, interesting people like you and old mister sojourner here.” The strange mage lifted the golden mask from the artificer’s face and threw it carelessly on the ground. The clang of metal on stone was swallowed by the rushing of the waterfalls. Lifting her pale hand, the walker tapped Venser’s temple with a black-tipped nail, and then the touch quickly changed to a caress of the artificer’s slack face.

Elspeth shivered on her friend’s behalf. “We’ve no quarrel with you, and nothing of value--”

“Assumptive little cunt, aren’t you?” the walker said, purring the words as if giving a compliment. She turned and bared her teeth in a fanged grin. Elspeth tried to pinpoint the walker’s eyes amidst the swirling black vapor that made up the top half of her face, and was alarmed to find herself growing lightheaded. I never faint… The warrior fought hard for her consciousness, and was glad she had when she heard a booted step on the stone and a low, confident voice call out…

“The champ’s no cunt, but I’ve got an interesting, beautiful one for you right here if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Liliana. Elspeth smiled to herself just before she passed out and fell hard to the ground within the stone circle.

Ashiok laughed as Liliana swaggered out from the shadows. The dream-walker turned up her palms noncommittally. “I’m not sure you even merit the c-word, anymore, Vess. Word on the street is you’re just a washed-up slut.”

“Eat me.” Liliana gestured impatiently at Elspeth and Venser. “What’s this all about?” The warrior had collapsed on the ground, bound tightly in leeching tentacles. The artificer was just standing there like a dummy mannequin, obviously under some kind of mind control spell.

“Just doing my job,” Ashiok said opaquely, tilting her head at Liliana as she lifted a white finger and twirled lines of black smoke around Venser’s ear in bow-tie shapes.

Liliana scowled. “Job? I thought your job was to put Theros to sleep so Bolas could put his little god-immortality fallback plan into motion. Your reward being complete omnipotence on such a plane, of course.”

Ashiok’s smoke-hat flared unflatteringly for a moment, indicating her displeasure that Liliana was aware of her assignments. The dream-walker recovered quickly, though, knowing that in terms of surprises, she definitely had the upper hand in this conversation.

Tilting her chin up haughtily, Ashiok wrapped her arm even more snugly around Venser’s shoulders. “Lord Bolas saw fit to give me a nice juicy side task, just the other day. We heard this guy was in town…” Ashiok paused to touch Venser’s lips with her pallid finger. “And decided it was an opportunity that couldn’t be ignored.”

Liliana yawned. “What ‘opportunity’?”

“The opportunity to get rid of one of the distractions that are affecting your productivity.” Ashiok grinned in smug satisfaction as Liliana’s act of disinterest completely evaporated and was replaced by a look of white-hot rage.

“Bolas discussed this--this nonissue--with you?!” The necromancer’s amethyst eyes flared violently to life, burning with a carmine light so strong that Ashiok backed up a step to be further from the heat that suddenly emanated from Liliana.

“I’m privy to many of Lord Bolas’s most covert plans and private thoughts--”

“As I’m sure you’re privy to the innermost workings of wiping his ass after he takes a dump.” Liliana clenched her fist and black flames erupted around it. She took another step forward and Ashiok took another back, nervously pulling Venser along with her and keeping the benumbed artificer between herself and the rabid black mage.

“So angry, Vess. Could it be there is some truth to the rumors? Are you really reduced to running from demons, tail between your legs, fucking everything that moves to stay in denial about your waning power?” Ashiok ducked behind Venser’s shoulder as a magical black-fletched bolt buzzed through the air right where the dream-walker’s head had just been.

“You’ve been sifting through filth so long you wouldn’t know the truth if it pissed in your mouth,” Liliana said with deadly calm. “I don’t care what orders Bolas gave you, back off. I’m giving you one chance. I have no problem murdering you here, right now, and taking this debacle up with him in person next time I see his fat dragon ass.”

Ashiok tsked snidely, and Liliana felt psychic fingers jabbing at the front lobe of her brain. She growled and unleashed a scalding wave of plague in Ashiok’s direction, careful to keep the degenerative maelstrom from touching Venser’s skin.

The dream-weaver cowered behind the artificer’s body, but popped back up immediately after the spell had dispersed. “Trying to rot me out? When I’m half-dead already? Such weak sauce, Vess. Bolas is right--you must be slipping.”

Liliana stopped her advance, crossing her arms and smirking like she was merely waiting for a better song to dance to at the Bitter End tavern. But her mind was a torrent of cold calculations.

She didn’t know Ashiok that well, having spoken to her (or him… the other agents had placed bets on the strange walker’s gender, but no one had gathered any conclusive evidence yet) briefly only once or twice at some of Bolas’s formal (but off the record) employee gatherings. Ashiok had become an agent only recently, primarily tied to the Theros project. Liliana knew Ashiok specialized in dark mind magics, and used the title “nightmare weaver” in her dealings. Used to being around mind mages after dating Jace, Liliana had easily sensed Ashiok’s mental probing the very first time they met, and had warned her off from trying such things in the future by giving her an old-fashioned bloodied lip.

Liliana hadn’t seen nor thought of Ashiok since, and that had been over a year ago. The current situation was spiraling towards becoming an all-out duel, and Liliana knew Ashiok was goading her into it. But what was the alternative? Weather Bolas’s insult and betrayal of her privacy, stand by and let the weaver kill Elspeth and Venser? The fools had obviously been easy for the dream-walker to subdue; she must have waited patiently for the perfect moment to ambush them. Likely they hadn’t even known she was there until it was too late. Mind mages were all the same: sneaky, rat-like, insipid--but efficient.

Absently Liliana stretched her neck, observing Venser’s condition as she did. The artificer was in thrall to Ashiok right now, but Liliana doubted Ashiok’s ability to make Venser act physically against her. He was too stubborn, and artificers were notoriously hard to manage with mind control. Liliana guessed Ashiok could keep Venser out of the fight, but wouldn’t be able to use his powers.

If I can just slightly disrupt the signal, Venser can probably free himself the rest of the way. Liliana knew the artificer would jump in to fight at her side, and smiled at a memory of how well they worked together in battle back on Mirrodin.

The key, if she indeed dueled Ashiok, would be to keep her grip on reality protected while at the same time throwing the dream-walker off balance by making her engage in actual physical combat.

Liliana debated. As much as she wanted to snuff out the creepy agent’s life, she knew that without much detailed knowledge of her opponent, what the duel demanded was a tall order. How do I keep getting into these tiresome situations? First Tezzeret, now weirdo ghoul-shanks here…

Ashiok watched, amused, as Vess feigned indifference while examining the odds from every angle. The dream-walker respected Bolas’s most notorious agent from a professional standpoint, though she found her methods quaint and outdated. Ashiok couldn’t help but lick her lips as she thought of getting in the great Liliana Vess’s head. What had Bolas said? “If she interferes, you can play with her--but don’t break her.”

The dream-walker snickered to herself. Bolas didn’t realize that Ashiok’s playthings got broken more often than not, and that her skill was such that she could paste them back together so they almost perfectly resembled their former selves… Only around such minute details such as free will were they never really the same.

What the dragon doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Besides, Ashiok mused, when I am master of Theros, even Bolas will have to bow to me in my dreamworld…

Ashiok felt a sharp pain at the base of her skull. It always happened when she started to get impatient, and also usually when she had insubordinate thoughts about Nicol Bolas. Had it been a problem in our previous life? Ashiok couldn’t remember. She shrugged it off.

Stepping out from behind Venser, Ashiok spread her hands placatingly. “Vess, we’re both professionals. It’s clear if it comes down to dueling, this is going to get very messy. Why not just let me take care of the others, and go on your way?”

The necromancer’s eyes dimmed only slightly. “I’ve been working with that one on Ravnica.” Liliana jerked a thumb at Venser. “Or did Bolas forget that?”

“He said you’d have a replacement--” Ashiok began delicately.

“Oh, I’m sure. He meant his dancing monkey Tezzeret, no doubt. As if I’d ever accept working with that metal-brained moron.”

“The warrior means nothing to you, certainly. It would be a great favor if you’d just allow me to end her existence, to correct a mistake I made months ago.”

“And what was that?”

“Bolas wanted her to ascend to godhood on this plane for some reason, and I promised him I’d make it happen. It didn’t. That woman has a knack for making people dislike her, which, of course, prevented her ascension on Theros.” Ashiok was frowning at Elspeth’s unconscious form as if the character trait was a personal affront.

“Now he wants her dead?”

Ashiok sighed dramatically. “If she lives, she’ll no doubt prove to be a thorn in his side during the implementation of future schemes.”

Liliana turned her head to look at Elspeth, too. The warrior’s white attire was stained everywhere with dirt, sand, and muck so that it was more grey than anything. Serves her right. White is such an impractical color. The golden mask Venser had so carefully made was hanging slightly askew on her face, and some strands of russet hair had fallen out of her prude bun and lay limply across her forehead and neck. Bound up in Ashiok’s black magic, Elspeth simply looked… tired. And helpless.

“You’d give her a painless death?” Liliana said, watching Ashiok out of the corner of her eye. The dream-walker nodded quickly.

“Of course.” Ashiok was nearly salivating as she looked at Elspeth. Liliana rolled her eyes, sure that Elspeth’s end would a slow, torturous one despite the words that came out of Ashiok’s mouth.

Venser would never forgive me. Liliana audibly growled at the unwanted thought, and the flash in her eyes startled Ashiok into retreating behind the deanimated artificer again.

“What about him?” Liliana said icily. “What did Bolas say you could do with the artificer?”

Ashiok hesitated. “Well, Venser and I go back a long ways--”


“I mean, we ah, sort of have a score to settle--”

“And just what would that entail?”

“That’s kind of a personal question, don’t you think?”

Liliana blinked, then narrowed her eyes at Ashiok. The dream-walker was peeking over Venser’s shoulder, the tiniest of smirks dimpling the corner of her bloodless lips.

She’s playing me, Liliana realized. The thought was jarring and somewhat unsettling. Liliana reacted with discipline, letting the rest of her anger fall away until her mind was totally cool and calm, an empty, ice-filled cavern. This whole conversation was just wasted time. I can’t make a deal with her--she’s probably certifiably, irrevocably bat-shit insane. Look at her smiling over there like a sicko, probably thinking of all the torture she wants to try out on us. Gods damn you, Bolas. Liliana carefully examined her consciousness, making sure it was free of any signs of Ashiok’s meddling. Only when she was sure she was still grounded in reality and hadn’t been tampered with did she address her opponent, a sultry grin on her face.

“Ashiok. You and I both know you won’t be making any bargains with me. You’ll try to take what you want, and die trying. I bet you started a coward, and will end up as nothing. This is your last chance to leave intact. Leave, and leave us alone. Your last chance, did you hear me? Your last chance. Even if you become omnipotent on this ass-backward plane, you’ll be nothing. Nothing. Just a little bit of crazy trapped in a big wide world--just a less witty version of poor old Doc. Just another Nicol Bolas power tool. Did you hear me, you filth-sifting piece of forgettable trash? Leave. Or duel. You. Crazy-Ass. Fucking. Bitch. Hurry up and decide--because I’m already starting to forget why I’m wasting breath here. Oh, and on a personal level--why do you have half a face and why is your skin the color of birdshit? It’s not a great look for you.”

Unintelligible curses spewed from Ashiok’s mouth, twisting her features into an ugly, parasitic maw as she raised her clawed hands.

“I’ll make you remember me, Vess!” she screamed. Black smoke was pouring in thick, greasy clouds from her head as though her rage had set her own brain on fire. In any other duel Liliana would have laughed at the sight, but despite her earlier harsh taunting of the dream-walker, she instinctively knew this was going to be a fight for her life.

Ashiok, mouth moving soundlessly, pointed an accusatory white finger at the black mage.

Liliana was already cloaked in several layers of counterattacks. But, it wasn’t the necromancer that Ashiok targeted. Whirling, she dug her black nails into Venser’s shoulder. Liliana had expected something like this, and hoped the pain would help rouse Venser’s snared mind. Still, she chanted a curse and sent a paralyzing atrophy coursing up Ashiok’s arm to slow any damage she might be inflicting on the artificer.

Ashiok howled in pain but persisted, veins bulging in her forearm as she finished her spell and looked at Liliana venomously.

“You wanted to know what I had in store for our mutual friend here, didn’t you? Ha, ha, ha! Well, see for yourself--I just wanted to touch him a little...”

Liliana’s eyes widened in alarm as she saw blood begin to trickle from Venser’s nose, and then his right ear. The rivulets pooled in the collar of his tunic, and she thought she saw the blue motes in his eyes flicker in pain.

An unfamiliar type of panic welled up in Liliana’s chest. Calm down--he can handle it. Mishra’s balls, he’s been dead, after all. A little brain abuse won’t change much. Liliana focused, thought of Jace, and made herself invisible using the blue mana that his memory brought her. Another cloaking spell shrouded her mind, and a third obscured her very essence from detection.

Ashiok hissed in surprise when the necromancer disappeared from sight, then threw up her arms to shield her head as a flock of bats appeared from nowhere and started assailing her with their tiny, pointed teeth.

Revelius,” Liliana whispered, just to remove the glamour from Venser’s gaze. The blacked-out quality vanished, and she could see his true grey eyes once again, Ashiok’s blue mind-control motes glowing in their centers.

Liliana stepped around the artificer, coming up right behind Ashiok, and called forth two black psi-daggers. Ashiok had just dispersed the bats with a swarm of locusts when she felt searing pain in the vicinity of her kidneys.

“I hate having a body!” Ashiok wailed, reaching back and squealing when she brought her hand forward and it was discolored with her own blood.

A few feet away, Liliana smiled in satisfaction. The daggers unfortunately hadn’t penetrated as far as she’d hoped, due to some kind of skin-hardening spell Ashiok wore. Smart.

So was Ashiok’s next move, which was to target Elspeth. The dream-walker pointed at the champion with a shaking hand, chanting several words of black magic--some of which Liliana recognized. An instant later a Phyrexian monster had appeared right above the the still unconscious warrior, its jaws snapping dangerously close to her golden mask.

Liliana cursed under her breath, knowing Ashiok was purposefully going to keep her running to defend the two other planeswalkers.

Exactly what I would have done if I was her Liliana thought grimly as she dismembered the creature from a distance, trying to keep her physical location from being detected by Ashiok observing the origination point of her spells. Liliana winced as the creature’s guts fell out onto the unconscious warrior. Hopefully after all this was over Elspeth would be too grateful to be alive to care much about the mess… and, well, that outfit of hers had seen better days already anyway.

Liliana retaliated for Elspeth by opening a pit full of acid directly under Ashiok’s feet. When the dream-walker laughed and merely started to float into the air to avoid it, Liliana thought of Ral and brought down a barrage of flaming projectiles--each the size of an ogre’s skull--that slammed into the weaver’s head and torso and brought her crashing to the stone where she skidded several feet before coming to a smoking stop.

“How are you doing all this?!” Ashiok shrieked, pounding her fist into the stone. “You’re supposed to be a black mage! Black! Do you hear me, Vess?!”

Liliana stifled a gleeful snicker as she skirted the edge of the battlefield to return to Venser’s side. A feeling of euphoria coursed through her veins that her long-nurtured secret tech could finally be unleashed full blast against such an annoying, deserving opponent. Liliana had been experimenting with her discovery for years. Long ago, she’d found out that the mana chain could be extended with a little determination and the right… preparations. Liliana grinned to herself. So simple, yet none of them had seen it but her...

The necromancer was also glad her assessment of her opponent had been correct. Ashiok wasn’t used to feeling physical damage to her own person. It might still not be enough to make up for the fact that Liliana was expending energy to guard two completely useless allies, but at least she’d get to hear Ashiok squeal and whine a lot during the duel. Ignoring the weakness in her legs and the slight sickness that always came with casting against color, Liliana put her ear to Venser’s chest and was relieved that his heartbeat was strong and normal.

Liliana touched two fingers to the artificer’s neck and thought of Gideon. She whispered the word of power, and waited. To her dismay, the blue motes held fast in Venser’s eyes and he remained frozen in place. Liliana swore and wiped a bead of sweat away from her eye.

“I’ve had about enough of you, Vess--that is, until I get in your head.” Ashiok was rising shakily to her feet, laughing in an unnervingly creepy way.

Liliana said a few more words, shielding Venser the best she could before she had to return her attention to protecting Elspeth’s body. Ashiok was chanting, tightening the tentacles that held the warrior to the ground. The champion whimpered, and tossed her head--the nightmares she was experiencing apparently worsening as Ashiok’s spell took effect. Liliana threw a shielding spell in Elspeth’s direction as well, but it glanced off an invisible barrier the weaver had erected around the warrior.

Ah, that was my mistake. She put Elspeth to sleep--because she draws power from the dreams of her victims, using their nightmares, no doubt. That’s probably where that Phyrexian came from--Elspeth’s baggage. I should have concentrated on waking Elspeth, first--Venser’s only in thrall, it is the dreamer that is the greater threat… Liliana filed away the information about Ashiok’s powers, as she always did when exposed to a new adversary, for later use. If there was a later.

Gloating, Ashiok summoned another creature from Elspeth’s dreams. Liliana looked up, dismayed to find it was a twisted version of a god she could only assume was Heliod. Burning righteously white but casting a deep black aspect behind him, the creature had horns of solid gold, a fluffy beard, and a pumped physique that made Gideon look scrawny and Erebos pre-pubescent in contrast. The nightmare-god was so tall that he took up most of the battlefield by himself. The white spear he carried was tipped in poison, and in the other hand he wielded a shining sword with a bloodied blade. Eyes blazing red, the nightmare Heliod glowered down at Liliana and pointed his spear directly at the place she was standing.

“Nonbeliever. How dare you profane Theros with your foul presence!” he boomed.

“Ha! Ha! Found you!” Ashiok seethed happily, saliva dripping disturbingly from her grinning mouth.

Liliana sighed and dropped all her cloaking spells. No use wasting energy maintaining them when gods obviously had the power to see through them on this thrice-accursed plane. The nightmare Heliod advanced on her, slashing his bloody sword down and across the stone path. Liliana hastily erected the one artifact spell she knew, right across the gap between her and the godly abomination, to give herself time to think. Ashiok howled in dismay as the dark Heliod hesitated, thwarted by the bridge that now stood between the stone circle and the rest of the path.

Breathing hard, Liliana leaned on dummified Venser for support. Now Elspeth, Ashiok, and the bodybuilder god were on the nyx island, and she and the artificer were across from them on the main ground of the clearing at the end of Phenax’s path.

“Vense. What should we do,” Liliana muttered, wiping sweat off her cheeks with both hands. She peered up at the enthralled artificer from beneath her black hood and frowned. “Why don’t you just wake up, you big dummy! I could use some help here.”

Liliana thought she saw an eyelid twitch. “Hm, what if I tickle you?” She reached out and fluttered her fingers in several potentially sensitive places on Venser’s body. Watching carefully, Liliana was certain she saw the artificer’s pupils dilate. Probably in rage. She laughed.

A hoarse shout interrupted her ministrations, and she turned to see Ashiok leveling several ineffective spells at her bridge, trying to remove the obstacle to her minion, but was apparently wary of coming across to continue the fight herself. Nightmare Heliod was making some kind of grand speech, had lit his spear on fire and was waving it around like a torch. Luckily the bridge had the side effect of damping sound, so Liliana didn’t have to listen to all their nonsense on her side of the battlefield. Everything would be fine, except Elspeth was still over there trapped with the circus, writhing in her unnatural sleep.

“Would you hate me forever if we just walked away from this deathtrap and left her?” Liliana asked softly, reaching up and stroking a wayward piece of Venser’s hair away from his eyes. His grey eyes stared straight ahead, but the answer was obvious in any case. Liliana scrutinized the artificer’s pale face, noting how dark the circles were under his eyes and the gauntness of his cheeks.

“For ball’s sake, Vense, did you get sick on the way up here? It looks like you lost another five pounds since I last saw you--like what, a day ago? The Path couldn’t have been that bad…” Without thinking, Liliana reached back and squeezed Venser’s ass. “Yep. Definitely thinner,” she murmured. “And what is this?” She plucked at his temple. “A gray hair? Wonderful. I leave you alone for a few hours and you come back a wreck.”

“Ah well, I guess we couldn’t really leave Elle here unless I figured out to get this mind bug out of your head, anyway. Too bad I don’t have your talent, eh? So I could just hold your hand and ‘walk us away even with you drugged up…”

Liliana shook her head. Am I babbling? It seemed like making a decision was taking much longer than it usually did. She frowned to herself, eyeing Ashiok suspiciously from across the bridge. Griseldamned. I need to just do it. That bitch is probably sniffing all around my head, doing god knows what, just waiting for her chance.

A strange feeling in her stomach, Liliana glanced at Elspeth, then once more at Venser. “When we get back to Ravnica,” she said, reaching into the artificer’s belt and pulling out the tracer and a spellbomb, “It’s bedrest and carb-loading for you, roomie.”

Liliana turned back to the battle armed, and calm.

With a really unsexy grunt, Liliana chucked Elspeth into the nearest waterfall, hurling the unconscious warrior with all the strength she and several pump spells could muster. Panting, the sorceress watched with satisfaction as the white warrior zipped upwards amidst the spraying water until she vanished, presumably to end up back alive on Theros topsoil, at the point where the upside-down falls met the sky.

“Why do warriors have to wear so much damned armor anyway?” Liliana grumbled to herself as she turned back to survey the battlefield. The gravecrawlers and other zombies were still right where she had left them, clutching lustily to Ashiok’s legs and wrists and making a good nuisance of themselves to the otherworldly nightmare mage. Ashiok was hissing and spitting like a cornered cat as she tried to extricate herself from the melee.

Liliana took the moment to prop her hands on her knees and draw ragged breaths. She winced as a booming roar worsened her already acute headache. It was the dark Heliod, drawn from Elspeth’s nightmares. He was stomping in circles, clawing at himself in agony, apparently still unable to find where Liliana had stashed the superheated tracer on his body. By the look of it he also hadn’t yet found where she’d placed the spellbomb. He wasn’t going to like that, either…

Ashiok finally freed herself from the embrace of the gang of undead, and at that exact moment Liliana straightened up, sucked in a deep breath and expelled some dark words through clenched teeth--impassioned thoughts of past lovers fueling her spell.

The nightmare weaver screamed and grabbed her throat, gasping for air as layers of skin and flesh were flensed in wave after burning wave from her body as the magic ran its course. Liliana watched impassively as Ashiok succumbed to the devastating effects of the sorcery, finally crumpling to the ground in a smoking heap of unrecognizably defiled parts.

Relieved, Liliana swept her hand out toward the now-howling nightmare Heliod, and muttered the words to a powerful enchantment of white magic. The ring of light flared up around the false god, and he flickered and waned until he disappeared completely from the battlefield.

Liliana sank to her hands and knees, chest burning with every breath. She opened her mouth to cough and spat up blood on the ground instead. Shaking, nauseated, and numb in most of her extremities, the necromancer smiled to herself. Not only had she defeated Ashiok, she’d also gotten to test the effectiveness of her method to cast against color. She’d proven she could stretch the definition of mana bonds, in serious combat, and with great success.

A wheezing laugh escaped Liliana’s bloody lips and she tried to push herself to a standing position. She failed, and fell hard to one knee. A sound caught her ear and she glanced up quickly, blurred gaze wary and lips ready to cast again.

Thank the gods and devils--it was only Venser. The artificer was hurrying towards her with his usual long strides, fastidiously avoiding the messier areas of the battlefield. Liliana chuckled and lifted her hand in a weak wave. It was good to see her housemate mobile again--the mind control spell must’ve broken when Ashiok went down.

Reaching her, Venser knelt down quickly, his face full of concern. He brushed his fingers across her face and put his hands on her carefully to help her stand.

“Don’t say anything. I know I look horrible.” Liliana tried to grin. Venser only smiled as he gently slid one arm around her back and the other beneath her, lifting her up so he could carry her. Liliana thought she felt his hand graze the underside of her breast, and she rolled her eyes.

“Opportunist!” she accused, resting her head against his chest. She noticed the place where blood from Ashiok’s mental assault had stained the collar of his tunic. It had dried to a dull brown. He still smelled good, like he had when he’d carried her on Mirrodin… soap and sweat and copper and rain.... if only they could get away from this moldy underworld and the stench of death so she could smell him better…

Venser was walking, holding her, taking her somewhere safe. Liliana felt her eyes getting heavy. She smiled into his shirt.

“Thought of it too late… but would’ve been hella funny to stab Ashiok with your toothbrush.” The dark sorceress’s giggle was muffled in the artificer’s chest. Liliana was very sleepy, but she tried to stay awake to hear Venser’s reply.

“What toothbrush?” he said.

Retribution Interlude III: Bed of Lies coming soon...

Retribution in Ravnica
an original Magic: The Gathering fan fiction

No comments:

Post a Comment