“If you ever touch me like that again, I’ll kill you.” The husky whisper came from somewhere in the vast darkness.
Venser struggled to process the statement as he regained consciousness. He simultaneously recognized the post-teleportation queasiness in his stomach and the sharp prick of a knife being pressed into the side of his neck.
The voice purred out another threat. “I mean, we both know I like it rough… But seriously, try to manhandle me again, artificer, and you’ll be tasting your own balls before you die.” Venser swallowed the huge lump of bile in his throat and cautiously squinted one eye open.
The necromancer Liliana Vess grinned down at him, violet eyes sparkling dangerously like twin amethysts. She was sitting on top of him, astraddle his lower torso… Venser blinked his eyes groggily, raising his hands in empty-palmed deference. The dark-haired mage pursed her lips and flicked him with the knife anyway, nicking his skin. Venser flinched in pain.
“Damn it, Lil--” he started to say. Liliana raised her eyebrows expectantly, putting the knife to her lips and actually licking his blood from the blade as if it was a completely normal thing to do. “You’re insane,” Venser muttered. Then he sighed tiredly. “It won’t happen again.”
Liliana smiled. She flipped the switchblade shut and with a twirl it disappeared back into some secret place on the tight leather bodice she wore. Then she leaned back, luxuriously situating herself on top of Venser’s pelvis like it was an old favorite armchair. The shift in position put all her weight on the artificer’s most sensitive areas, and he winced for a different reason. Liliana yawned.
“Now what, roomie? You need to tell me why we’re here.” She glanced at their surroundings. “One second we were Theros topside, and now we’re… wherever this is. Dank, huh? Kinda smells like an armpit. Where’d you bring us, Vense?”
Venser frowned, trying to focus on something other than the feeling of Liliana’s ass pressing into his crotch. She shifted again, turning to look behind her, and the artificer swore in his head--well aware the dark mage never did anything on accident.
“Looks like…” Venser took a deep breath. “We’re in the underworld of Theros.” He was relieved that his voice sounded normal. “Mind if I get up?” he added nonchalantly.
Liliana glanced down at him with her eyelids half lowered. “Aren’t you already?” she said with a smirk.
“Actually, that’s the tracer,” Venser admitted truthfully. “Look--” he reached down. Liliana jumped up, glaring, before his hand could get anywhere near her butt. Venser smiled ruefully. His long fingers undid one of the pouches on his belt and withdrew the artifact in question.
“See? Not as baroque as my toothbrush, but still generally phallic in structure. Do you want to borrow this too?” It was Venser’s turn to grin as Liliana rolled her eyes, waving her hand dismissively.
“Don’t we need it to find our destination?” she said, apparently tiring of the banter.
Venser shook his head. “We’re already here.” At Liliana’s quizzical look, he continued. “I had pre-attuned the tracer before I ‘walked. When I accidentally teleported us from the surface during our, uh, conversation… it activated, guiding the port to where I wanted to go.”
“You said this is the underworld.” Liliana seemed to consider the landscape around them, taking in the ebony-colored stalactites and thin, listless fog. Venser followed her gaze as he got up off the floor. A small stream trickled past them, its water as black as jet. In the distance, flagstones of polished onyx seemed to indicate the existence of walkways in many different directions. Rocks and remnants of statues were scattered throughout the cavern, many appearing to be made of hematite or plated in gold.
“So what in the Abyss do we need in Theros’s land of the dead, then?” she finally said, her expression perplexed and impatient.
Venser ran a hand through his hair. “Looking for someone,” he said quietly.
Liliana eyeballed him. “Great. Who?”
“A friend.” Venser absently straightened his tunic and turned away from the necromancer’s scrutiny.
“Friend? This was a long way to come to catch up with a friend.”
“Not one of your type of friends, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Venser said tersely. “A true friend. An old friend.” He started to walk away from Liliana, heading upstream.
His companion snorted. “Please,” she said in disgust. Still, she began to follow him toward one of the flagstones, her gracefully aggressive gait quickly matching his longer but less predatory strides. It was emptily quiet in the cavern, the planeswalkers’ footfalls not overly pronounced yet still ringing creepily on the black stone. The only other sound was the occasional drip of moisture from stalactite to stream.
“How do you know where she is in this dismal place?” Liliana’s sudden question startled Venser just as they entered the fog. The deathly white mist seemed to part for them, which made Venser’s skin crawl, but Liliana sashayed right into it as though she always experienced such supernatural fanfare at her arrival.
“How do you know it’s a ‘she’?” Venser said, pulling the tracer from his pocket. He flicked a button and a warm light flared from one end of the artifact. He shone it down onto the ebony stones of the path, revealing beautifully carved patterns.
Liliana snickered. “Just a hunch.” Venser turned to look at her, but she just smiled and shrugged, violet eyes full of innocence. He shook his head and continued along the path, shining his light just far enough ahead of them to make sure they weren’t walking into any holes.
After a few minutes in the fog they rounded a long curve followed by some pillars, and suddenly heard a sharp sound ring out: the strike of metal on metal. Some ways up the path there was a flash of light--just a flame’s brief reflection off gold.
“How’d you know this was the right way to go, Vense?” Liliana drawled as they approached. The artificer seemed disinclined to answer until she poked him hard between the ribs.
“Ow! Fine. I could feel it.”
“We have a connection.”
“Ooooh! Like a love connection?! Venser, am I about to meet an ex-girlfriend of yours? How exciting! It’s like one of those zib-store romances: you’ve spilled your seed in her womb, and now, though you’ve been years apart, you can still sense her unique presence in the multi--”
“For the gods' sake, Lil, it’s an artifact. Okay? I gave her a talisman once, and I can feel the metal. Will you shut the hell up now? Please?”
Venser’s walk had slowed noticeably, and now he came to a complete stop. The metallic clanging sounded at irregular intervals, much closer. Liliana looked ahead and saw a lone figure through the swirling, unnatural fog. The figure worked from the light of a single torch, raising its arm and then bringing it down to pound away at something.
Liliana glanced up at her housemate. He was staring down at her with an unreadable expression in his gray eyes. There was, however, the telltale tiny line just above his left eyebrow that meant he was on his way to getting seriously angry. Liliana wasn’t sure when she’d memorized that particular tell of Venser’s, nor could she make sense of why she was even taking the time to gauge his mood at the moment. The necromancer shrugged and opened her mouth to say something, and was surprised at what came out.
“Calm down! I’ll play nice, I promise.”
“Is that supposed to be reassuring?”
“I’m serious! I promise!”
“I’m going to regret this,” Venser muttered. Liliana put her hand on the small of his back and gave him a shove forward, noticing his wince at her touch.
“Take it easy, captain. Just get going and do what you need to do,” she hissed, annoyance back in her voice. Venser gave her a last look, then started forward again. Liliana fell into step to the side and slightly behind him, hoping he felt it was a respectful enough distance for whatever kind of reunion was about to ensue.
Just finish this horseshit and then get back to business on Ravnica… Liliana’s thoughts strayed to her wine venture, and the Guildpact…
The fog was gone, and the hammering had stopped. There was an awkward silence. Liliana refocused on the scene in front of her, noticing Venser had paused still some ways away from what had turned out to be a makeshift anvil in the circle of torchlight.
Fascinated, Liliana examined the figure at the anvil who was now staring suspiciously at them. It was a woman, as she’d expected, young and obviously very fit. Liliana could see the curve of a toned bicep in the arm that had paused mid-hammer-stroke. She could also see from the tautness and quality of the woman’s skin that she was fairly young, certainly not over thirty. Close to Venser’s age perhaps, possibly a couple years older, although that in itself wasn’t saying much… since age amongst planeswalkers was mostly just a vanity due the way the multiverse looped and twisted often distorted time itself.
Liliana knew the woman was a planeswalker in the same way a dragon knew gold was gold. The necromancer had learned to trust her gut on the matter over the hundred-plus years she’d traveled, and the feeling was always the same: a tight anticipation, a buzzing of energy on the air, a smell that she could only describe as spicy. The only person who’d ever thrown her--who’d she’d not immediately recognized as a fellow walker--was ol’ buzzkill Venser.
The woman had lowered her hammer arm and was blinking in consternation. Liliana noted the blacked-out eyes, obviously some kind of curse or an affliction associated with the environment. The woman was pretty even with the morbid gaze, Liliana had to admit. The torchlight shone on the woman’s rich russet-brown hair, and glinted off the chest plate that covered enviably perky breasts.
Aside from the gold and silver armor, the young woman wore all white. Liliana’s lips curved up in a sneer.
“Elspeth,” Venser said, breaking the silent staredown with a gentleness in his voice that Liliana had never heard before. She glared sourly at the back of her housemate’s head but only had a moment to be cross before things got really interesting.
“Venser?” The young woman’s mouth had dropped open in shock, and recognition slowly spread across her features. Amazingly, the black veneer obscuring her eyes faded--revealing stunning blue eyes the color of the Theros sea.
“Venser!” Now the woman dropped the hammer carelessly on the anvil; it banged harshly against the metal and slid inevitably off the edge to hit the floor with a bitter thud. The woman didn’t notice--she was stepping around the obstacles with a warrior’s confidence, nearly running, her face lit up with a pure joy that made her smile dazzling and her expression painfully beautiful.
“Elspeth, I--” Venser’s welcoming words were cut off as the woman reached his arms, rushing into them to clamp her strong hands over his shoulders and press her grinning mouth against his, rosy lips and sun-kissed skin contrasting sharply against the artificer’s pale…. everything.
In the shadow of the comrades’ embrace was another shadow, stiller than death and colder than the wisps of fog flickering at the edges of the torchlight. Liliana stared dispassionately at the scene before her. All she could think of at the moment was whether or not Pivlic had ended up using the correct font for the label of their new varietal.
Moments later Elspeth and Venser finally pulled back to just look at each other, hands clasped around each others’ bodies. About time. Liliana rolled her eyes, then felt something that made her glance down. To her surprise she was bleeding--the artificer’s damn toothbrush was clutched in her hand, and the clock on top had cut into her palm.
Venser was enjoying Elspeth’s grateful smile when he heard Liliana laugh. The sound was chilling and brutal, causing him to whirl around in alarm.
He must’ve had a strange expression on his face, because Liliana just laughed harder.
“Lil?” Venser’s voice was hesitant and cautious, ripe with trepidation.
“I’m sorry--” Liliana stifled her giggles with a gracefully raised hand, noting that ‘Elspeth’ was regarding her from behind Venser’s shoulder with a nonplussed expression. It wasn’t hostile, but it certainly wasn’t warm either.
“Are you… okay?” Venser asked. At Liliana’s nod he relaxed a little, stepping back from the protective stance that he’d taken in front of the white-clad warrior.
“I just remembered that I told Ral I’d meet him for drinks, and I totally forgot.” Liliana shrugged, a smile on her lips and her eyelids half lowered in amusement. Venser’s neck stiffened just slightly at the mention of Ral Zarek, but that was the only outward betrayal of his thoughts. Liliana pretended not to notice. “The thought of him sitting there waiting while he gets madder and madder was comical. I’m sorry, it was terribly rude of me to burst out laughing like that.”
Liliana turned a dazzling smile at Elspeth. “And the lack of introductions has also called our manners into question!” she chirped, extending her right hand. She kept the left casually tucked into a pocket of her black skirt. “I’m Liliana Vess. And you are Elspeth…?”
“Tirel.” Elspeth glanced down at Liliana’s hand, noting the strange purple scars that crisscrossed the pale skin. The fingers were slender and uncalloused, finished with neatly filed and lacquered nails--a sorcerer’s hand, as opposed to a warrior’s. A dark silver ring in the shape of a skull grinned up at Elspeth, its eye sockets glittering with onyx stones.
Elspeth shook Liliana’s hand firmly, nodding her acknowledgement, and to herself wondered what her old friend Venser was doing in the company of a necromancer.
“Now what?” Liliana said brightly, grinning at Venser, who scratched his head uncomfortably. The underworld mists seemed to be growing thicker with each passing moment, filling the labyrinthine caverns with a chilling dampness. The only lights they had were Elspeth’s torch and Venser’s tracer, and so far Theros’s land of the dead didn’t seem very hospitable.
“I’m, uh, not sure.” Venser looked to Elspeth. “I had a strange dream,” he said. “It… compelled me to come find you. But other than that, I have no idea what’s going on.” The artificer shrugged sheepishly. Elspeth smiled at him.
“Look, I kept this all this time,” the warrior said, pulling forth an object from her tunic. It was a shining piece of round, slightly domed metal. The surface was polished to a blinding gleam and displayed a foreign sigil. Liliana blinked at the artifact, the corner of her mouth twitching with displeasure for a half second while no one was looking.
“That’s how I found you,” Venser admitted. “It would have taken a lot longer if I had to search the low-tech way. Lucky for me the signatures of any metal I’ve shaped act like homing beacons.”
“So what now?” Liliana asked again, arms crossed and smile back in place. Still, she couldn’t keep her index finger from tapping impatiently on her gauntlet.
“I’m trapped here,” Elspeth said matter-of-factly. “In fact, I’m dead.”
“What?!” Venser exclaimed. But Liliana’s eyebrows rose in interest.
“Let’s sit by the torch,” Elspeth suggested, noting that the mists were encroaching on the path. She seemed unnerved by the growing darkness. Liliana had the opposite reaction, growing more at ease as she glided over to the makeshift anvil and hopped up to sit right on top of it. Venser glared at her as he took his own seat on a nearby rock, but Liliana ignored him. Elspeth appeared to be more comfortable standing, and positioned herself right under the torch.
The warrior tucked a stray strand of russet hair behind her hair and sighed, looking very young and very tired for a moment. “So the short version is: I challenged a god. I killed that one, but then a different one killed me.”
“You can kill gods here?” Liliana asked, with genuine fascination.
Elspeth nodded. “On Theros, they’re like physical… physical versions of the people’s dreams and… beliefs. The god I killed had only just become a god. He did it by tricking people into believing he was one.”
“So whatever people believe here becomes reality?” Liliana was incredulous. Elspeth nodded again.
“Don’t get any ideas.” Venser muttered in Liliana’s direction. She silenced him with a violent look.
“I advise you do the same, artificer. In more than just professional pursuits.” Venser weathered her stare by flicking the tracer on and off. Liliana’s eyes seemed to glow a brighter violet.
“So…” Elspeth continued, and the other two planeswalkers broke the staredown by turning to look at her. “Before I had gone into battle, I’d made a deal with the god of the dead… basically binding my soul to his realm. We had a bargain. So here I am.”
“What kind of deal was it?” Liliana pressed. Elspeth looked hesitant. “I’m kind of an expert on these things.” Liliana smiled at the warrior and turned up her palm reassuringly. “Maybe I can help.” At that, Venser rolled his eyes heavenward and absently began stabbing the tracer into his wrist repeatedly. Both women ignored him.
“My life for… someone else’s,” Elspeth said, quietly.
“Did the god of the dead keep his end of the bargain?” Liliana looked suspicious, as if she already knew the answer.
Elspeth shook her head. “I’m not sure. My… friend’s… soul doesn’t seem to be here. I think he would have come to me, if he was around. But I feel ill at ease, like something’s wrong. Sometimes I have dreams that he--my friend--is looking for me, and I’ve even heard his voice calling. But it doesn’t sound like him, not like I remember him. I just think… that if he was alive and well, and living out his life on Theros like he should be, it would feel different…”
Liliana nodded emphatically. “Yep. Trust your gut when it comes to afterlife dealings.” After allowing Elspeth a troubled pause, the necromancer continued. “So Elspeth, what is this ‘friend’ to you?” The warrior looked up, piercing blue eyes meeting Liliana’s violet ones. Liliana shrugged.
“Gods and demons tend to lord it over you when they know how important someone is to you.”
Elspeth sagged a little. “He--Daxos is his name--he’s my… was my…” Liliana noticed that Venser was looking at Elspeth with interest now, and the necromancer decided some helpful prompts were in order.
“Brother-in-arms? Bosom buddy? Relative? Lover? Friend with benefits? Enemy with benefits? Frenemy with assets? Object of unrequited love? Source of undesired obsession? Platonic comrade who wants more? Gay comrade with lover you’re jealous of? Feature fixture in your erotic dr--”
“We slept together.” Elspeth finally interjected, stoically and with resolve. “I’ve known him since I was a child. I fled here briefly when I was first running from the Phyrexians. Somehow, he remembered me when I came back… I don’t know what that makes us. Lovers, I guess?”
“Close enough,” Liliana gave her a toothy grin. Venser had his head propped on his fist like he had a headache the size of a battlesphere, which greatly improved Liliana’s mood. “Does this god of the dead reside here, in the underworld? I mean, can we get to him from where we are now?”
Elspeth nodded, jerking her head toward the east. “His throne room is that way. All the gods dwell sort of simultaneously in Nyx and in their own seats of power, plus wherever they’re running around topside. I don’t pretend to really understand it, that’s just what I’ve been told.” Elspeth shrugged and Liliana felt herself growing to like the no-nonsense walker just a tiny bit.
“I’m not sure we can do anything for Daxos,” Liliana said. “We might need to focus on your situation. How do folks escape damnation here on Theros?”
Elspeth thought a moment. “The myth is that some deceive Erebos by leaving their memories here but taking their physical selves back to the realm of the living, using something called the Path of Phenax.”
“Who’s Phenax?” came Venser’s muffled voice from behind his hands.
“Another god. Not one of the five primes, but a very popular ‘lesser’ one. The God of Deception.”
“I like him already,” Liliana said.
“I was planning to try the Path, before you arrived. I was working on my mask.” Elspeth gestured to something behind Liliana. The necromancer reached back and pulled something off the anvil.
“This? Oh, sorry, I think I was sitting on it a little.” Liliana smiled in apology and handed the gleaming gold object to Elspeth.
“Don’t worry. It wasn’t going well anyway--I don’t have one artistic bone in my body,” Elspeth admitted, turning the mask so they could see the uneven edge and lumpy face.
“It’s not that bad,” Venser offered. Elspeth gave him a look.
“You’re a liar. It’s awful and I know it, Venser.” The warrior laughed and Liliana joined in, the artificer running his hand through his hair in embarrassment.
“Fine,” he said. “I’m just going to sit here and be quiet.
“Small blessings,” Liliana said. “So, Elspeth, does this Erebos have to permit you to leave? Or can you just sneak off by calling upon Phenax for aid?”
“Erebos would know,” Elspeth said, looking tired again. “I think he only wanted my soul because of my planeswalker spark. I’m like a…” She looked deeply ashamed. “...A special thing in his collection.”
“Alright, so we’ll trade him for something else special.” Liliana grinned, and Venser’s head snapped around to look at her with clouded gray eyes.
The necromancer was only paying attention to Elspeth. “Still, he might try to refuse my offer… or double cross us, so I think you should finish your mask. You do it, Vense.”
“I said, you can make Elspeth’s mask. And one for yourself, too. You both should be on the Path when I take audience with Erebos.”
“Why are you doing all this, Lil?”
Liliana narrowed her eyes at Venser. “I’m solving a problem so we can go back to Ravnica and finish the operation there as soon as possible.”
“I appreciate it,” said Elspeth, “But you can’t risk your lives for me. I got myself into this mess. Neither of you are obligated to help me--please don’t.”
“He won’t leave unless this is solved,” Liliana sighed, stabbing a finger ungraciously at Venser. “I at least know him that well. And I need him with me on a different plane, for very selfish reasons. So you really need to let me help you, Elle, so we can go home.”
Venser turned his head just slightly, and gave Liliana a strange look. Elspeth noticed, but the necromancer didn’t, her eyes were fixed on Elspeth. The warrior hesitated, looking from her friend to his dark companion.
“Please?” Liliana smiled. The amethyst eyes glittered with ambition, but Elspeth didn’t doubt the sorceress’s sincerity. After a long pause, the warrior finally nodded.
“Alright, but the least I can do is make my own damn mask,” Elspeth said with a defeated smile.
“Save your energy for swinging that hammer at people’s heads, Elle. It may come to fighting our way out every inch of the Path. No sense in overtaxing yourself over tedious artisanal matters--not when we have one of the finest artificers in the multiverse right here at our disposal, eh?”
“At your service, madam,” Venser said sarcastically.
Liliana ignored him and continued speaking to Elspeth, her tone more grave. “I’m hoping that even if it comes to leaving without permission, we can leave with your memories intact…” Liliana flipped her hair, smirk returning. “...Thanks to some handy dandy mind magic I’ve acquired from otherwise very useless ex-boyfriends.” Liliana winked again. Elspeth looked dubious for a moment, but then her soldier’s instincts took over.
“What do I need to do?” she said.
Venser’s skilled fingers traced lightly over the bones of Elspeth’s face. Elspeth struggled to sit still, the process entirely too intimate even though she’d known Venser for years. Where the artificer’s fingertips brushed over the warrior’s bare flesh, faint but precise glowing lines of blue appeared… until Elspeth’s skin was crisscrossed in a mask of illuminated vectors that represented a perfect topography of her face.
Elspeth tried not to twitch as the artificer leaned back and surveyed his work, grey eyes flicking back and forth as they searched for any errors. Venser reached over and adjusted something by her ear and Elspeth had to concentrate in order not to flinch. It wasn’t that her old friend was objectionable at all--in fact, he was handsome in a studious way and she was fond of him--the warrior simply didn’t like to be touched. Exposed to the horrors of Phyrexia at a young age, Elspeth had lived a life of martial combat forever after, and the constant fighting had taken its toll. She knew some soldiers reacted the exact opposite way--seeking physical intimacy to blow off steam every chance they could get--but not her. On and off the battlefield, Elspeth Tirel rarely let down her guard.
Finally Venser stepped back and nodded. “That should do it.” He ran one of his gentle hands through his always-mussed mousy brown hair. “So you can breathe now,” he added, cracking the barest of smiles at Elspeth. The warrior raised her eyebrows, then exhaled with a laugh, not realizing her anxiety had been so apparent.
“Thanks. I think I was getting faint,” Elspeth joked, twisting a kink out of her neck and wincing.
“Yeah well, that’s the effect I usually have on women,” Venser said in a subversive monotone, making the obligatory joke with such tired resignation that Elspeth couldn’t help giggling for real, and giving him a sisterly pat on the arm.
A sharp sigh emanated from the nearby shadows. “Is there any way this mask-making can take any longer? I mean, I’d like my ass to be completely asleep before I go see Erebos, you know?” Liliana materialized from the darkness, yawning as she gave a huge feline stretch.
Venser’s grey eyes flicked to the necromancer. “Almost done,” he muttered. His lips settled into a thin line as he went to Elspeth’s makeshift anvil and picked up the lumpy, misshapen mask she’d been working on when they’d found her.
Elspeth’s blue gaze also went to the black mage, noticing how the dark woman’s amethyst eyes blazed under eyelids misleadingly half-lowered into a languid expression. Liliana kept one hand petulantly posted on her hip as she watched Venser go to work on the mass of gold. Elspeth couldn’t imagine how these two had met, and couldn’t fathom how they’d come to work together after that… and she hadn’t had a chance to speak to Venser privately, yet.
Hiding her curiosity behind a warm smile, Elspeth looked up with trust as Venser came to stand before her again. His brow dipped low in a grimace of concentration as he held up the abused piece of gold in front of her face.
“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt,” he said, glancing into her eyes quickly for permission to begin. Elspeth squinted despite her best efforts, but nodded her consent. It reminded her of being in the field surgeon’s tent.
Venser smirked as if he knew what she was thinking, and his eyes began to glow with a soft silvery inner light. Elspeth watched, fascinated, as his fingers increased their pressure on the mass of gold in his hands. His knuckles turned bloodless from the tension, and his fingertips were suddenly afire with what appeared to be white-hot energy.
Elspeth felt the mask he’d traced upon her face lift off her skin and then she could see it floating forward to meet the golden version in front of her. The metal and the magical blue grid came together, melding in pulse of energy that bent the air between Venser and Elspeth with water-like ripples.
A flash and twinkle, and the light in Venser’s eyes went out. He took a faltering step back, and Elspeth was surprised to see Liliana’s hand appear at his elbow to steady him. There was the sound of someone exhaling, and Elspeth realized with embarrassment it was her own--she’d been holding her breath again.
Venser was grinning at her, and he flipped the golden object in his pale hands so it was facing her.
Elspeth gasped in surprise. She stared at the mask a moment wordlessly. It was a perfect copy of her face, her features replicated with care and artisanal love in the golden curves. Venser’s attention to detail was apparent in every inch of the mask--from the faint, faint line of determination to the right of the mouth to the slight tension in the beautifully sculpted brows that swept up like gulls’ wings.
As Elspeth realized how well Venser must know her face in order to cast this spell so perfectly… how much he must have actually looked at at her… the white-clad champion felt a very un-warrior-like blush start to creep up her cheeks. Elspeth looked away from the mask and berated herself for being a silly girl.
“That’s amazing,” she mumbled to Venser. “And thank you.” The artificer nodded, having been around Elspeth enough to know that if she was flustered, she was experiencing some kind of unusual emotion. The faint pinkness on her cheeks and the shy smile currently aimed at nowhere in the darkness in particular were enough thanks for him.
“Very impressive,” Liliana said drily, instantly spoiling the moment and reminding Venser he might as well be on the clock. He rolled his eyes, steeling himself to turn and look at her, and was rewarded with a painful poke to his temple as the necromancer dug her fingernail into his skin to emphasize her words.
“Now yours, and then I’ll be on my way.” The black mage’s voice was low and impatient, and something about it made Venser’s stomach clench.
“Just what are you going to do, anyway, Lil?” he asked as he rolled up his sleeves, knowing he should just keep his mouth shut and leave the sorceress to her schemes.
A smile. Venser’s innards did a sickly dance.
“I’m going to distract Erebos so you two can get up the Path,” Liliana chirped, throwing a reassuring grin towards Elspeth. Venser resisted the urge to lick his lips nervously, and merely nodded.
“A violent distraction?” he said, promising himself it was his last question.
“Diplomatic is more what I had in mind. One planeswalker for another. It’s fair, after all. But you know me, Vense… never was one to shy away from violence, if it comes down to it.”
She seemed about to wink, but at the last second looked down and just mused at the floor. And Venser knew then exactly what she had in mind. His face showed no traces of the realization, however. He didn’t even blink. He just nodded again, looking down at her confounding face that so poorly hid her intentions from him. Infuriating. And so damn beautiful.
“I’ll need help with my mask,” Venser said. Liliana looked up, purple eyes annoyed and questioning.
“Can’t you just do what you did to her to yourself?” she snapped.
“Doesn’t work like that.” The artificer shrugged. He turned to Elspeth. “Care to help? I need someone to make the pattern for me.”
Elspeth’s eyes widened. The thought of touching Venser’s face so thoroughly unnerved her, mostly due to the fact she was in no hurry to flaunt her artistic limitations again.
“Erm… I’m pretty sure that’s a horrible idea.” The warrior cringed. “I mean, doesn’t the mask have to look like you? I wouldn’t want to blow our cover by giving you a pattern for your mask that was so hideous that Phenax would know it obviously wasn’t you.” Elspeth gave a self-conscious shrug and chuckle.
Venser laughed. “I personally don’t care if it turns out looking like a goblin, but it’s not something that can be self-administered.”
“Still not fair if you have to wear something awful while I go out in… this,” Elspeth mumbled, tracing a finger delicately on her own golden visage.
Venser turned pointedly to the necromancer next to him. “Lil?”
“Fine. Whatever it takes to get us out of this moldy sewer of an underplane and back to Ravnica.”
Venser’s mouth twitched. He stepped over to a large boulder and seated himself on it, settling down in a comfortable position. Liliana glanced at him with a suspicious squint and a strange twist to her heather-colored lips. Venser gestured her to come closer. She did, and positioned herself uncomfortably near, wedging herself between his legs and glaring down with an imperious violet stare. Venser flicked his eyes up, past her encroaching bosom, and stared impassively back at the dark mage.
“Ready to learn something?” He cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Yes, master,” Liliana said.
Elspeth cleared her throat. “I ah, um… I’m going to make sure I’ve got all my stuff. Before we clear outta here. You know, don’t want to forget anything…” the warrior stood up noisily and moved toward the other side of the campsite. “I’ll be over here if you two need me. Okay? Great.”
There was no answer from either of her two planeswalking companions.
The throne room of Erebos was much more austere than Liliana expected. She’d predicted decadence--maybe some kind of shabby chic thing going on--with cracked marble busts and indifferently thrown black silks over a lot of gilded edges.
She wasn’t expecting minimalism. The smooth, reflective floor spread before her boots in an even, precise march of square, highly polished hematite tiles each roughly the size of the gigantic accorders’ shields she’d seen back on Mirrodin. The depth and breadth of the throne room was decadent--the vast floor giving the impression of walking upon a still, unforgiving silvery-grey sea. The sheer size of the chamber supplanted the need for gaudy decorations to indicate the importance of its inhabitant. Liliana nodded in silent approval as she continued her pilgrimage across the gleaming pewter-colored expanse.
The walls of the throne room were blackness, the ceiling simply an open night sky. Torches that burned with cold light floated at intervals along the outer edges of the chamber, casting their ghostly light in spectres of reflection on the hematite floor.
Liliana had changed into something more appropriate for the occasion, meaning she’d taken off her cloak and gauntlets and gloves and skirt and was approaching the throne of the god Erebos clad only in her black basilisk-leather corset and boots.
“Get out,” Erebos said to Phenax and Pharika, with whom he’d been in counsel before the doors to his throne room had burst open a few moments ago. The lesser gods bowed low, exchanged a brief glance behind the back of the God of the Dead, and vanished in respective poofs of black smoke.
Liliana grinned inwardly and slightly slowed her walk. She’d reward his interest with anticipation.
The Lord of the Underworld turned his full attention to his uninvited guest. Smoke poured from the corners of his eyes, eyes that could be described by the best of Theran poets only as “the absence of.” Yet to Liliana, the twin dark voids held worlds of promise. Set in a face so expressionless it could have been yet another mask--this one made of storm-burnished titanium or platinum, perhaps--the abyssal eyes were empty as goblets drained of wine. And goblets were meant to be filled.
Liliana heaved a deep sigh that almost caused her bosom to unbind itself from the bustier, and watched in satisfaction as the smoke wafted from Erebos’ eyes in thickened flumes. The dark sorceress smirked to herself.
Men, minotaurs, demons, dragons… why not Gods?
A white-gloved hand rested on his arm. The artificer looked up into eyes of black, made so by a minor glamour that Liliana had pulled from her seemingly endless bag of tricks. Elspeth’s face shone golden, her mask illuminated by the dim torches that flanked the path they were about to take.
“I’m fine. Sorry.”
Elspeth nodded. “Let’s go then.”
Venser reached up and adjusted his own mask self-consciously, making sure it was secure. He briefly ran his finger over golden lips too perfect to be his own, across cheeks and temples free of worry lines, over a brow too proud and confident to ever belong to him.
And yet, the mask looked just like him. The artificer’s thoughts flew to a few hours ago, when Liliana had held the metal face in her hands, scrutinizing, appraising… and finally hmphing in approval before she tossed it to him with a cavalier flick of her wrist, turning away in disdain before she could see his reaction. She’d walked into the fog without a backward glance.
“Stay alive. I’ll meet you at the other end of the Path.” A last order, before the mists closed behind her, leaving Venser alone and staring in silence at the piece of metal in his hands.
“Venser?” Startled, the artificer looked up and realized he’d spaced out again, and Elspeth had already passed the torches and made her way up the bone-strewn trail.
“Sorry,” he said again, and set his long strides to catching up with Elspeth. He smiled at his friend, though he knew she couldn’t see it through the golden visage, and side by side they began the arduous journey out of the underworld.
Retribution in Ravnica Book II, coming Spring 2015
In the meantime, get your fix with bonus content in Retribution Interludes.
Retribution in Ravnica
Retribution in Ravnica
an original Magic: The Gathering fan fiction