Project #2 – Act 2: The Torch of the Shard Pt4

The lift was a peculiar contraption to behold. It was like a giant chute running from floor to ceiling, with a rather concerning mount of fraying on the ropes that prevented the platform from careening to the ground. They were already a few floors up, but this small district boasted around twenty floors. There was a lever the jutted out from a hole in the floor, crafted into a large sturdy cog (the first sturdy wooden thing Tarklie had seen all day). She peered over the chute and it was nothing more than a sheer drop. Tarklie wondered how many residents had made the pit at the bottom their new permanent home.

“The platform is above, push the lever forward and wait for it to come down.”

Perfect, Tarklie was now Maris’ new lift operator. She should have known Maris would want to get her hand dirty doing a job so beneath her.

She passed the spear across to Maris who tried to hold it with a finger and thumb so as not to dirty her hands. She miscalculated just how heavy the thing was and it nearly clattered to the ground before she thrust both hands out to stop its fall.

“I don’t know how you carry this around all day darling; I’m utterly exhausted just looking at it.”

Tarklie pushed the lever forward, and the ropes began to run in opposite directions with an initial creak. Every few rotations of a wheel the rope looked like it might give in from the weight, but it continued turning on. From above the wooden platform lowered from view and Tarklie pulled back on the lever to stop it just short of the landing. It looked about as comforting as an obliterator’s jaws and hung on a slight slant. Tarklie turned to Maris with a look of distrust.

“This is safe?” She pointed at where the level was askew.

“You’re more likely to get your toes gnawed off by the dead at night than you are to die in one of these things.” She ushered Tarklie forward. “But if you don’t mind, after you.”

Tarklie shook her head. “Ladies first.”

As if by command Ting wheeled himself onto the lower end of the platform. The ropes made no noise and it held fast.

“See! Nothing to be-“ Maris slowly wandered on next to her brave little companion and platform immediately began to groan and bump gentle against its rails. She held her arms out to balance. “They can be temperamental.”

Tarklie reluctantly placed a foot over the threshold and stepped gently next to Maris as the whole thing creaked once more. A seasoned solider, fearless of the odds of war and one who had faced hundreds of Phyrexians, now terrified of being killed by a contraption made by a race of humans who could barely look after themselves. She shuffled over to Maris and relieved her of the spear.

“You can push the lever this time.” Tarklie said, as her body went rigid in preparation for the ride of her life.

Maris put a hand on her chest. You mean me? With these hands? She scowled and leaned across, planting both feet in front of the innermost lever strapped to the platform’s centre and tugged. The platform sprang to life and began to rise with a little more speed than Tarklie was comfortable with. Maris stood and looked on at the inner walls in indifference, patiently waiting with her hands folded in front of her. She occasionally stole a glance at Tarklie, rigid and stoic but showing more than a little uneasiness in her stomach region. A small grin appeared on Maris’ lips. One of Ting’s arms unfolded and patted Tarklie on her greaves.

Maris pulled the lever bringing the lift to a stop after numerous floors had been passed. They were near the very top of this massive district, but the floor was so sturdily built and obstructed the view below, Tarklie’s brain was unable to process how high they might be. They stepped out the lift, Tarklie shuffled, and Maris walked straight on producing a key from nowhere. She walked forward to a door with a lock, this one significantly more durable than the one Ting had dismantled earlier, and spun her key around. Before opening it she turned around to face Tarklie.

“There are things in here that do not mix well with spears and shields. Our first order of business is putting that shield and spear away someplace isolated and then getting that armour off and making you look a little more… amiable?

“People do seem to stare.” Tarklie nodded.

Maris flung the door open and strutted inside, Ting whizzed off somewhere beyond the entryway and made himself scarce. Tarklie wandered in after Maris and marvelled at the extravagance of the place. The floor was laden with numerous rugs and carpets, ranging from intricate patterns to thick furry hides. Along one wall was a seating area laden with chunky furs and pillows surrounding a small table at its centre. Across to the left was a stone shelf running along one wall, stacked with cups and plates next to boxes of foods and strange liquids in glass bottles. There were two doors on the opposing wall.

“Shut the door behind you if you please. You can put your shield and beatstick under the shelf the plates are on.” Maris said, as she slunk behind one of the doors into another room.

Tarklie placed down her spear with a muffled clang and began to unstrap the shield from her crippled arm. It had grown sore and achy after bearing so much weight for so long, and she couldn’t wait to feel the release of blood. Sometimes she could feel the blood rushing to a phantom limb, and despite the small pang of sadness, it brought a strange sense of relief. She walked over to the sitting area, placed herself down on one of the more comfier piles of fabrics, and began to unbuckle her boots. Maris began talking from behind the door.

“Now I don’t take you for a woman of taste – You’re more practical boring ‘I need to swing my limbs, or what few I have, around’. That doesn’t mean we can entirely give up on making you look vaguely dignified.” Maris squeezed around from behind the door, a pair of below-knee brown leather boots in one hand, and a pile of double quilted leather gear in the other.

“It’s no platemail, but its strong sturdy stuff. It’ll make you a little more flexible and a little more forgettable in the eyes of common folk. I’ve had male employees in the past, so this should fit your more… strong stature. A woman would certainly kill for that jawline.” Maris tossed the pile at Tarklie.

Tarklie had tossed off her boots towards the door and stood up to Maris and turned around.

“I’ll need help removing this cuirass. There are two belted clasps on each shoulder, and three down the left side.” She pulled her mane of brilliant hair around to one side and lifted an arm.

“Oh my, this is getting a touch personal.” Maris slapped Tarklie’s thigh and began working away at the fastenings.

Within a few moments she peeled the armour away from Tarklie, pulled down her chain pants and threw it all next to the boots. She looked back at Tarklie’s tunic and briefs, they were dirty and sweat stained, weathered from days of fighting and running. It made Maris’ heart sink a little that she was walking around in such a state.

“Give me a moment.” She sprang back in the room and returned with some thick cotton padded pants and a fresh green tunic. “This green should work nicely with your hair. Take yours off and I’ll burn the lot. Seems a fitting way to forget this whole mess.”

Tarklie slipped off her remaining garments. Maris couldn’t help but stare at her bizarre Mirran form – Metal traces ran along her bone structure in symmetrical canals. Her skin went from supple flesh to deep iron tones around her shoulders, and her spin was inlaid with a rigid steel-like structure. Her calves were human, but as the skin worked around to the fronts of her shins, it was like her body had built-in metal pads, operating as a kind of incorporated armour. Maris noted that it ran up her neck and through to her skull, but it was entirely obscured by her flowing volumes of bright copper hair and platinum streaks.

Tarklie slipped on the green tunic and pulled up the soft shorts. She began to pull the quilted jerkin over her head and Maris approached to help fasten up the laces.

“Were you… made like this?” She asked Tarklie, as she ran her hands along the metal veins running up her spine.

“Where I come from, we are all like this. This is how we grow.” Tarklie said in a matter of fact tone.

Maris traced scars and dense patches where skin had been removed and healed over time. There were cuts in the skin and dents in the metal, significant chunks missing in areas around her rubs where blows had glanced off the metal and taken pieces with it.

“They are from countless battle with the Phyrexians.” Tarklie said, slipping on the shorts over her legs and lifting the tunic to cover her body. “The war took more than a physical toll on us all.”

“You’ll have to fill me in during out talk. Get your gear on my giantess, I’ll pour us some wine and throw together something to fill your stomach. There is much to talk about, but I can’t have your metallic extremities snagging at my furs.” For once, Maris gave Tarklie a sincere comforting smile.

They sat together on the seating, eating and drinking mostly in silence. Tarklie was too busy filling her face with bread and cheese and whatever this liquid Maris called “wine”. It wasn’t thirst quenching but it provided her with a very unusual sense of liberation. Maris looked on in both disgust and enjoyment. She detested the company of most people, but Tarklie was a unique experience for her, and looking after someone who seemed so appreciative of her offers gave her a sense of pride. She knew she owed her for her services thus far.

“Never tasted wine before then? You’re what, thirty years old and you haven’t even gotten drunk off the fumes of a sneaky homemade concoction at least?” Maris peeked down at the small pile of blankets, checking for signs of stains. Tarklie ate like a savage in her desperate state, but she was at least considerate.

“I haven’t really kept count of my age in a few years since Mirrodin was under siege for so long. At a guess I’d say I’m closer to thirty six.” Tarklie spoke around the lump of pulverized food in one side of her mouth, brought the wine up to her lips and washed it down. “I certainly feel older.”

“I must admit I prefer being the younger of the bunch. Still, you’ve not got much on me. My wilder days are long since gone. I think I might’ve had at least three twenty ninth birthday celebrations.”

Tarklie popped her cup and plate down on the floor, wiping her face of crumbs into her lap and then flapping them onto her plate. Maris appreciated the gesture despite dozens of wild crumbs finding places to deposit themselves amongst the throws. Maris put her own cup down and took both their plates away before returning and sitting cross-legged directly across from Tarklie.

“Tell me your story and I will tell you mine. Tell me no lies and I shall do the same, plus I’m better at it than you so you’d never win anyway. If we can accept one another as we are, I will try to help you find home, or peace, or both. I believe we are both cleared of one another’s debts, so from here we can decide where our fate leads.” Maris put out a hand. “Deal?”

Tarklie looked down at the hand for a moment. Could Maris finally be willing to lay bare her real intentions? Tarklie still didn’t entirely trust her companion, but they had looked after each other thus far. If she didn’t like what she was hearing, they could part ways as amicable equals.

“You have a deal Lady Maris.” She took her hand and shook it firmly.

“I do so enjoy it when you call me that.” Maris mused.

Tarklie spoke for what felt like hours, detailing life on Mirrodin before the Phyrexian invasion, the early days and how far and wide it had spread. She told her of Koth, of his ability to walk the planes, of the encampment and her role as a commander in the remaining Mirran resistance. She detailed the metal landscape of her home, the five suns, the five praetors of the Phyrexian force and how hard they survivors had tried to overthrow the inevitable tide. She held no details back, from the moment she set foot into Kuldotha to the end when Koth strapped a device to her chest and she flew through an impossible hell of images and fire. The only detail she refrained from sharing was the entity she met there, the one that called her “little one”. Tarklie explained to Maris how Phyresis worked, changed metal into flesh and incorporating the two together in a sick unholy matrimony. By the time she had finished explaining the final fight of Kemba and her small legion, Maris’ eyes were wide and her face in awe of what she was hearing.

“You are all that’s left?” She asked with sad confusion.

Tarklie simply nodded with a glum expression.

“And this Koth, he walked what called were planes. Perhaps your Mirrodin is a plane, and Grixis is another plane. He sent you on one of his walks. Perhaps he can he find you here?” Maris was blitzing through theories in her head.

“No, he made clear that saving me was a sacrifice. I am the only Mirran that has survived the fall of Mirrodin. I am stuck here now.” Tarklie spread her arms around the room.

Maris was busy with the inner workings in her head. Planes. Grixis and Bant and all the shards. Mirrodin, a world of metal.

“I think… I think Grixis is a plane, and so are the other four shards. Something happened long ago that made them join, allowing inhabitants of each plane to march across the borders and invade.” Maris tapped her chin. “How far did you walk in this black hell of images? Was it like walking across a door? Perhaps you can simply walk back if we find a spot on the edge of Grixis?”

“I think Koth sent me far, far away from Mirrodin. I must accept I cannot go back. There is simply nothing to go back to. This is my fate.” Tarklie nodded, washing away the sorrow from her face and replacing it with an expression of fierce determination.

Maris appreciated what Tarklie was trying to do, but she could see right through the hollow gesture. She had to soak it all in. She also had to consider how to best lay bare her rather extraordinarily outlandish life of thrills. She sat before a principled soldier who had cut through the nonsense with militaristic altruism, something that Maris had actively avoided for most of her adult life.

“I suppose it’s my turn then.” She raised her eyebrows and threw her glance to a blank spot on the ceiling.

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Project #2 – Act 2: The Torch of the Shard Pt3

The only similarity Tarklie could draw was with the innermost halls of Kuldotha. The entrance hall was more of a bazaar; the ceiling cut so deep into the mountain you could stack twenty Nim high. It was more of a market square filled with hundreds of people than a simple entrance, and it accounted for only a fraction of the whole of torchlight. It had been so long since Tarklie had seen a gathering of this many living breathing beings that her breath was caught in her chest. Her awe was quickly overcome with the thick stench of body odour filling the air, various types of unappetising burning smells streaking their way through the gaps of the crowd, and the fact that a huge portion of these people were refugees with nothing to their names besides what passed as clothes on their backs. To Tarklie it was a humbling sight, but one that brought back feelings of the world she had been torn from.

Maris, however, shared no such feelings. She was doing her best at avoiding any physical contact with the regular folk shoving and pushing their way through the crowd, and Ting was whizzing between dozens of imposing feet threatening to kick him halfway to nowhere. She was getting visibly frustrated and making murderous gestures towards anyone that strayed too close to her invisible bubble of existence. To these people it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from, everything but themselves was merely an obstruction. Maris shared more personal feelings with these people than she would care to admit, but she was the one with the shoes a cut above the rest, and to her that mattered plenty.

“I don’t suppose I could convince you to clear a path with that beautifully wide shield of yours?” Maris looked back at Tarklie with some measure of disgust on her face. Tarklie could see it was a proposition with humour for a base, but some part of Maris begged for it to be a reality.

“We need to go up.” She flung a thumb up to the ceiling. “We’re not particularly far away from my next order of business.”

Business. Tarklie’s innermost cries for a bed would have to wait. She nodded to Maris and heard a faint bell noise amongst the feet of the crowd, Ting was clearly prepared. Maris raised one of her gloved hands and removed the silky wrapping. She stared at it intently, and to Tarklie’s surprise a faint blue glow began to build onto her skin. It carried on building until her hand was emanating a strong sharp blue light, and the crowd automatically began to disperse a little in front of her. The people here were entirely self-serving, but that didn’t stop them from enacting a little self-preservation when something strange stood in front of their faces. Ting appeared from between some bustle and arrived beneath the hovering hand of his master, and Tarklie followed close behind.

They moved as a unit, commanding a small area of personal space as they made their way deeper into Torchlight’s belly from the grand entrance. They veered towards one of the dozens of interconnecting tunnels and into a quieter but equally business thoroughfare. Just off to one side were wide steep steps cut into the earth itself, leading to a second floor of loosely suspended catwalks and platforms made from the same suspiciously weak wood that made up everything else Tarklie could see. Somehow it was managing to support shacks and hundreds of people, as well as great piles of wares, belongings and anything left to rot by a previous, perhaps unliving owner. It was both terrifying and miraculous to behold such feats of human engineering and sheer will to survive with what was available. It didn’t make her any less nervous about its structural integrity.

They made their way up the stairs, Tarklie’s legs groaning once more, and Ting’s little form bringing yet more surprises to her attention by springing up each step.

“What business brings us up here?” Tarklie asked, desperately hoping it wasn’t going to challenge her morals too deeply.

Maris could feel the tone behind the question. Time to tactically bend the situation. She looked across to Tarklie and offered her most sincere face as her brain whirred to keep the soldier in the good books. They stopped along a catwalk and Maris looked on over at a door surrounded by murmuring bodies across the empty air. They’d need to scoot around the edges of this upper market and cut through a few patches of rough sleepers. Maris leant against the splintered handrails as she replaced her glove.

“Do you see that entrance with the group of turnip headed goons deciding how they’re going to get past that rickety old door?”

Tarklie nodded. One of them was gesticulating wildly, indicating the large crowd of people able to see their every move. If alleviating suspicion was their future plan, then it had failed miserably already. Somebody skulked towards the group and caught all their attention. It was a short skinny little man, and he pointed over towards the steps Tarklie and Maris had just climbed. The group turned their heads in unison and began scouring the area. Tarklie could see Maris suddenly growing uncomfortable and shifting off towards the busier part of the platform, but it was too late. One of the men had spotted her and they immediately dispersed in separate directions like startled cats.

“Why were they all so interested in what’s behind that door?” Tarklie asked. Ting swivelled and eyed up Maris eager for her response.

“That used to be my place.” Maris replied, still focusing on the general area with some doubt about her. “Past tense. But a lady likes to hide things in certain eventualities.”

Tarklie raised an eyebrow; Ting looked at the expression and did his best to mimic it with his lenses before displaying it to his master. Maris crossed her arms in frustration and was suitably unimpressed.

“Now look, you’re a hardened warrior and likely enjoy the basics. I am of the unfortunate circumstance where I must now rely on your capable skills to survive the day without being beaten to death wherever I sleep. I need you and your shield right now, and despite the bluntness of your skills, you can probably understand how much I very dislike needing someone.” Maris pulled them to one side behind a lump of stacked crates and trash.

“I need you to be a shield for me, and we need to get in through that door. I’ll collect my hidden particulars and we’ll be out in a flash. In the event that the unlikely occurs, you make need to poke a few gentlemen with that big menacing stick of yours should they try to enter.”

“What’s so important in there? And what can you do for me if we do this?” Tarklie was feeling ever more concerned about her future on Grixis. She could stop several untrained bullies, but the Torchlight militia could pose a problem.

“If you do this for me, we’ll be straight with one another, yes? You can tell me where you’re really from and I’ll tell you what I do, what my plan is, what all of this is for. If you help me with this, I will strike up some kind of arrangement to help you. As a… partner.” The word rolled off her tongue like an undead trying to do arithmetic.

Tarklie felt vaguely pleased to be in a position of bargaining power, particularly with someone such as Maris who was probably keen to avoid such a situation. Still, she wasn’t sure how well she could trust her word. She knew she had little other choice.

“We get in, we get out, we sleep. Then we talk about everything, and I mean everything. I am placing my fate in your hands Lady Maris, but if you fool me, I will break you on my shield.” Ting’s little mechanical eyes grew wide and peeked across at Maris in anticipation of a fiery return of threatening words. None came.

“Very well. Can we move now? They’ll be waiting for us to move. We should sneak around what that thing claims to be a parlour, use the crowd to our advantage-“

“We walk in. I will deal with the door.” Tarklie cut her off. Maris’ eyes were sprung open in slight shock.

“….Ohhh Kayyy… After you then my wall of thorns.” Maris ushered Tarklie forward to the intersecting catwalk that led direct to the point of her interest.

It was direct, but bare. Maris didn’t like bare, she preferred having at least one meatbag between her and a wandering arrow. Even though Tarklie was an imposing force, and her shield even more so, she wasn’t all that convinced of her current abilities after whatever it was she had been through.

Tarklie stomped across, shield up to her side at the ready, spear hung diagonally in preparation for anything. Her stern eyes were locked on the door, sparing only a few moments every few meters to glance at her flanks for spying eyes. Nothing revealed itself, and within less than a minute they reached the door unimpeded, Maris still stuck to Tarklie’s rear like a rash. There were a few bystanders across the way, more interested in the curious looking woman with the red hair and metal running through her skin. To them she was a suspicion to behold, and it was clear she looked ready for a fight. A few people shuffled off across the entire first floor, bumping into one another along the way and making their way towards whatever other halls the deep of Torchlight offered.

“That was, swiftly and nonchalantly done my dear.” She patted Tarklie’s shoulder and slunk around to the front of the door. “I think you may be a bit menacing to some of the locals.” She nodded over to the ever thinning crowd of people pointing and staring at the first and last Mirran they’d ever see. Tarklie imagined they thought of her as some kind of curious biomechanical construct. To them she was probably no different than a Phyrexian, much like the first time a Mirran had ever seen one.

“Let’s get in sooner rather than later.” Tarklie turned to eye the surroundings.

“Well I don’t have a key do I? You really should pay attention.” Maris bawled her fists and placed them on her waist. Tarklie turned and flashed her eyes at her, the growing frustration and waning patience mixing into a millisecond of facial expression.

Maris looked down and whispered at Ting. “Come on little man, get us in.”

He looked up with pleased excitement, turned to the door, tucked himself in, and sped at the entrance. He smashed a Ting sized whole through the bottom of the door as if it were made of nothing more than mud and leaves, sending a small wooden clap that echoed along the ceiling.

Ting!

Maris groaned.

She pushed against the door and instead of swinging open it simply crashed to the ground, the hinges no longer bolted to the stone walls and the lock sitting disassembled on the floor amongst a pile of nails around Ting. He held two bolts outstretched in each of his little arms like a welcoming gift for his master.

Maris rubbed her forehead as she stepped over the door. “Can nobody appreciate a little tactfulness around here…”

“Get what you need. I’ll keep the entrance secure. There are people that don’t seem very frightened of me heading over, and they don’t look particularly official either.” Tarklie propped her spear against the wall, picked the door up with her one hand and slotted it across the doorway sideways as a means of cover. She grabbed her spear and kneeled back, spear pointed forward in her one-woman phalanx. Ting whizzed up next to her, pointing his stone encrusted bolt up in the same fashion with a splintered piece of wood in his other grip.

“Hold fast my little crusader.” Tarklie gave a nod of respect and a smile to the little automaton.

Behind them Maris disappeared through yet another door, and all they could hear was her banging and rifling through something. The place was still clearly lived in by someone. There were used bowls and tools neatly stacked in places, a number of books on a poorly hung shelf, and mats and blankets placed around as if someone had left without the thought of potential visitors. It was grim by any standards, but Tarklie could appreciate the struggle of living a life of survival. This was probably a luxury compared to what most people here had available to them.

Footsteps thundered towards the door from multiple directions, none coming from the direct route they had taken to get here. She couldn’t make out numbers or how well equipped they were, but she had the advantage of a bottleneck and long reach. They’d have to climb over a door and make it past her spear, but if they had bows or spells, she would have to work for her night’s sleep. The noises drew closer, and then stopped. All she could hear was breathing of half a dozen or more men. They were right outside the door preparing for an explosive entrance.

Two men’s heads appeared around the door followed by their bodies, shoving each other through the door and diving directly at Tarklie, but the small boundary she set up was doing its job. They were wearing little more than flimsy cloth clothes, one with a small axe and the other with what appeared to be a makeshift mace of wood and scrap. With expert precision she thrust the spear forward, skewering one man’s face. She slid it back with ease and impaled the second through the heart. There was little noise aside from a gurgled noise of shock. They both dropped to the ground in a quickly expanding puddle of blood and body matter.

Then Tarklie saw Ting charge towards the door, no longer armed with his makeshift weapons. She leapt up to stop him, but his arms folded back inside his body and he produced two impossibly large blades from his roller ball movement system. He hopped over the barricade and then the screaming began. Tarklie stood there, staring at the empty distance beyond the door as Ting leapt from left to right, sprays of blood dancing through the air after him like celebration confetti.

The screams stopped.

Ting popped over the cover, his hidden blades were gone and he strolled up alongside Tarklie with spatters of blood dripping all over. He picked up a nail and swung it around like a flag. Go team Ting. He looked up at Tarklie awaiting approval or praise. Tarklie could only look on at the door, still trying to take in what she had witnessed for a second time. She gazed back down at Ting and shook her head in disbelief.

“What are you?”

An arm appeared.

Ting!

His only response.

Maris burst through the door behind them clutching a small sack of belongings, tied up at the top haphazardly. She was visibly flustered, no longer wearing gloves and her hair was beginning to take a more hedge-like appearance. Sweat formed on her brow – Possibly a rare occurrence for Maris.

“In the words of goblin brigadiers, let’s bail.” Maris panted.

Tarklie’s mind was still processing everything that had happened as Maris pushed past her. She made it out the front door and began to wretch loudly.

“My god! You were certainly thorough.” She turned back and held a hand on the doorway to support herself as she controlled her breathing. “This fellow’s still wheezing out of eighteen different holes. I’m beginning to worry you enjoy your job a little too much.”

Tarklie squinted her eyes down at Ting. Could it really be possible Maris had only survived this long because this little ball of death had been thanklessly watching her back. For such a smart woman it was a surprise she hadn’t figured it out after this long. Unless of course, she was genuinely that confident in her expertise that she believed her survival was down to her own wit.

Ting looked back with no expression. Now you get it!

“Come on you dense planks!” Maris hissed at them, spinning round and running off down the platform.

Project #2 – Act 2: The Torch of the Shard Pt2

Not a whole lot made sense, but this Maris woman had spoken of Necromancers, something Tarklie was vaguely familiar with. The Mephidross on Mirrodin was once full of them before the Phyrexian plague. Their reanimated constructs were rarely of any kind of human form. The only thing Tarklie could do was trust this Maris for now, and hope that she knew a path to some kind of camp so she could figure out where this Grixis was situated. It was apparent this wasn’t Mirrodin, and wherever Koth had sent her, it didn’t hold much more promise than her home. The burn in her body was easing, and she could finally stand without constant spasms and shakes. She turned and jogged in the general direction of her new found guides, and quickly caught sight of a lady bobbing through the trees. What scared Tarklie most about her was that Maris seemed to indicate they were in some kind of dangerous place, and yet she showed little sign of actually caring about the dangers. She was either mad, deluded about her importance, or not something on.

After a gentle jog to stretch her muscles out, she finally caught up to the duo, and took to walking alongside Maris, covering the denser side of the path in case there were watchers deeper in the woods.

“Nice of you to catch up. What happened to your chest?” Maris pointed at the radial scorch marks across Tarklie’s breastplate.

Tarklie looked down, aside from the abrasions left on her chest; most of her armour was blackened at the edges as though she’d been tossed through a furnace. Her darksteel spear remained entirely intact.

“Looks like a demon caught you square in the chest.” Maris continued.

“I have fought many demons where I come from…” Tarklie replied, keeping things vague.

“Did one take your arm too?” Ting spun his body around while continuing his roll forward to peek at Tarklie, his lenses focusing in a squint to make out what his master was referring to.

“No, it was a friend.”

“That’s some friend. By the sounds of them you did good cutting them loose.” Maris lifted her nose a few inches into the air, clearly an independent woman in the making.

“It was my arm or death, and I don’t think he’s with us anymore.” Tarklie’s words drifted away. Could it really be that Mirrodin was gone? Every last person she knew had been wiped out, her entire home rinsed of life and made anew as a home for another species entirely.

“Well you don’t need him anymore anyway. I have relied on numerous people during my naive years as a young woman, and it got me nowhere. Now I seize the opportunity to get what I need, work for myself, and nobody has had the stones to take it from me.”

“What is it that you do? How does anyone make a life here?” Tarklie could hardly believe the words came out of her mouth, considering her prior situation. The people on this Grixis were probably in the same boat as the Mirran, simply surviving for the hope of something better on the horizon. Maybe Grixis might see one.

“I enforce a certain kind of poetic justice, ensure I am never left wanting, but otherwise wander where the fancy takes me.” This time is was Maris being vague, and Tarklie still couldn’t read what the woman’s real stake her was.

“And him?” Tarklie pointed down at Ting. He was still facing the two of them, this time shifting his attention between master and newfound stray.

“He was a ‘Grand Design’ of some keen and very charming young man down in Torchlight. He used to make things from bits he found, fix what was brought to him, and tinkered with whatever bizarre items that were brought to him. He made little old Ting here, said he was supposed to be a durable little thing for blah blah blah evolutionary. I used to occasionally inspect what the young man had day to day. Always wise to keep an eye on something that puts you a step above the rest you know. Anyway, a week later he was found dead, all tangled up in some contraption he had been working on. I went on down after hearing the very sad news, thought I might see if there was anything worth anything that might assist me in my endeavours. I found the little shiny tin ball scooting around the place in a bit of confusion. I figured something durable and small can fit into many interesting places. I have yet to find anything that’ll dent him, physically or in terms of his sickeningly endless enthusiasm.”

Ting’s little instrument arm came out and pranged against his base once more in delight, and then he turned around and pressed the course.

“What is this Torchlight? A camp?” Tarklie needed a clearer insight, and now seemed as good a time as ever to get questions answered.

“More like an undercity, once the last bastion of the living.” Maris splayed her hands in the air like some grand and meaningful gesture, as though the place she was talking about was for royalty. “Nearly all us breathers with our skin still attached were wiped out, then these great chunks of ground, some call them the shards, crashed into one another. When that happened things got a little more lively around here. The demons and the undead went on a march to the other four shards, and it’s all been a bit up in the air since. Grixis is certainly a lot more inhabitable since half the army of the dead is busy, or dead. Again. There are camps here and there but none as safe as Torchlight. Most humans congregate there now, and either live in slums, or sleep nearby.” Maris then focused her attention on Tarklie.

“The opportunities there are what you make for yourself.” She cracked a crafty smile and sprang up her eyebrows. “And I see you as a fresh one.”

Ting! Ting!

“Speaking of, we’re being intercepted. Now keep your spear in your girdle. Lady Maris will deal with this.” She popped a wink at Tarklie and wandered a little closer to her miniscule partner in crime, hands above her brow as she stared deeper into the woods ahead.

Tarklie stopped just short and turned around to cover the rear. With such little life it was fairly easy to scan through the trees, but there was a certain green tinge to the mist that hung heavy in the air. She saw nothing sneaking up, but Maris seemed quite sure. She turned around and sure enough, a figure was stomping through the mud towards them. He was nothing menacing, but then from Tarklie’s experience, it probably wouldn’t stop him from trying something. Everybody here sounded as desperate as her people were.

“Miss, or rather miss’s, I appear to have misplaced my partner and wagon.” He glanced down at Ting as he got closer to him and his owner.

“He’s about your height, rather lacking in hair and brain cells, not too dissimilar to the walking dead. Round, sorta.” He made a waving motion around his belly.

“Not seen him.” Maris retorted, shortly. Ting shook his little head in unison.

“Looks like your companion lady has seen some action.” He nodded towards Tarklie. “Rather well armed for a woman, and rather dirty looking, like she’s been rolling around in a swamp. My Taff wasn’t just a skip away from a swamp from where I left him.” He looked down at Maris’ shoes. “Shaaaame. Seems you’ve ruined those fancy shoes of yours too.”

“Sometimes one has to look the part, even in the dreariest of environments.” She gave the man a little shoulder shrug.

Tarklie could see him becoming visibly agitated at Maris’ refusal to be straightforward. His eyes shifted between her and Tarklie, weighing them up, logic slowly losing out over frustration. Tarklie could make short work of him, but her concern was that he was now just a foot or two away from Maris, and she’d never intervene in time. She could only hope that Maris could diffuse the situation, or Ting would review his needs for his limbs.

“Run along and find your missing man then!” Maris shooed the man away with her arms and began to turn past him.

No chance of diffusing this one then.

She saw him grind his teeth together, push his jacket to one side and slide out a rusty mallet. He raised it over Maris and Tarklie’s heart skipped.

“Maris!”

Ting!

In a split second the mallet came down and collided with thin air, Maris had flashed behind the man, produced a small linked chain and flung it around the man’s neck. He fell to the floor struggling at his neck, unable to release the pressure. Maris simply stared down and looked at his face getting progressively purple.

“Neat little things. Once tightened they don’t come off. Some say it’s a shame to only get one use out of a thing, but I rather appreciate the nature of disposableness.” Maris put her hands on her hips and continued to wait, watching the spectacle like a pot coming to boil.

The kicking from his legs slowly subsided, and his body came to a rigid stop. Once Maris was finally content with her handiwork she turned back to Tarklie.

“Don’t mess with the girls am I right?” Maris smiled at her achievement, nodding towards the lifeless body.

All Tarklie could think was how both amazing and grisly the woman she stared at was. Perhaps she was in safer hands than she thought.

“I think you may be.” Tarklie replied, still partially stunned. She would not underestimate Maris again.

***

They had left the body where it laid, and had started back towards this Torchlight place Maris had mentioned before. They had been walking for around half an hour, although Tarklie had noted that Maris mostly enjoyed talking about herself. She would occasionally allow Tarklie to indicate her feeling towards a particular subject before swiftly resuming her tangents. Ting had kept silent throughout it all, only occasionally glancing around to ensure his party was still following him. He looked curiously stalwart at times, acting like a pack leader and commanding a presence far larger than his stature. Tarklie had never met a machine with so much childish nature to it; she was far too used to the infected machines keen only for more flesh to incorporate into the Phyrexian machine. The way it looked at her sometimes, she felt like it knew something curious about her. Through only his eyes, she could see Ting knew she did not belong, but did not judge her for it.

If he could see that in her, she wondered what he saw in Maris.

It hadn’t taken long for Tarklie to judge Maris’ character however. Despite the surprise she had caused earlier, she was beginning to get a fairly clear idea between all the blurred lines that this not-so-noble lady threw in the works. She served nobody but herself, which meant the only reason she was assisting Tarklie was for her own benefit. She didn’t know how or why, but it was the likely outcome. That, at least, guaranteed Tarklie that she might have an ally for now, out of the simple fact she was seen as useful by this deceivingly powerful woman. Part of her hoped that in the event things went south, Ting might stand up for her in his own menacing way.

While mindlessly nodding along to Maris’ current vein of conversation, Tarklie began to see an enormous landmark rising in the distance behind the dark sky and smog filled air. It was like the greatest mound of dirt had been piled high into the air, like a smooth curved mountain but made of moss and this strange ground totally unlike her home. The whole thing was lit up by thousands of low twinkling lights, like the blinkmoths of Mirrodin had settled in a hive the size of a mountain. Vast swathes of trees had been cleared around it, most likely used as building material to keep the spider webs of caverns from caving in. Tarklie didn’t think much to the trees of Grixis, they were brittle and weak compared to Mirrodin’s cold hard plated vegetation. Everything about Grixis was weak and dying, but the people had to make do with what they had available, and they had faired far better than any Mirran.

Maris had paused talking, suddenly aware the only pair of ears to listen to her thrilling tales were otherwise engaged.

“It’s worse than it looks.” She said to Tarklie, blissfully unaware of the awe in this stranger’s mind. “I imagine Bant’s privies are more majestic than Torchlight.”

“How many people?” Tarklie asked, still staring dead into the distance.

“Well I wouldn’t necessary classify them as such, but if we’re talking pairs of hands, I’d say ten thousand. Though some don’t necessarily have the same number of fingers as you and I.” With that, Ting pulled one of his little arms out and wiggled his two metal digits, reviewing them with curiosity.

“You’re worth more than ten thousand Grixians to me my little irreplaceable tool.” Ting took what little praise he could from that statement and chased merrily on.

Judging by the distance it wouldn’t take them long to get there at a brisk walk, and Tarklie was ready to be rid of Maris’ chatter and in any kind of bed for a week’s worth of rest. From what Maris had informed her, the bed that was waiting for her might in fact be a little less comfortable than she hoped. She wasn’t entirely sure where or what Maris lived in, but she hoped it lived up to its owner’s personality. She couldn’t imagine a woman as contrived as Maris sleeping in a slum, let alone the underground streets of Torchlight. She oozed with stolen power and materialistic aims. While not the most desirable traits of a rescuer, Tarklie imagined there were probably far worse people on Grixis to bump into, two of which were now dead.

As they got just a few hundred meters away, Tarklie could make out the bustling platforms of people shuffling in and out and around the various entrances and openings. The perpetual darkness made it nearly impossible to decipher the time, but there was a certain glow to the east that had become significantly darker in the past few hours. The hermitage had numerous makeshift barriers at its base, blocking just a few enormous openings into the lowermost passages and tunnels. None of the people here were particularly well armed. What passed as the local militia looked to Tarklie like nothing more than a few untrained middle aged men who had seen to many risen corpses to do anything else but fight the tide off. They were clad in nothing but tough looking hide, and wielded some particularly worn looking swords and axes, the odd halberd being lazily propped up against the nearest wall. Wherever this was, metal was clearly not in much supply, or they simply didn’t have the skill to shape it.

“How do we get in?” Tarklie glanced at Maris, who seemed to be strutting toward the entrance as nonchalantly as ever.

“Don’t worry darling, they know me.”

Maris walked slightly ahead to greet the guards at the closest gate, conversing with two of them while smiling a false smile. Tarklie stood next to Ting while he waited for his master to finish her work.

“This one is on guard detail gentlemen, I’ll see to it she makes no trouble. Her bite is certainly worse than her bark.” She flicked her hair in Tarklie’s direction, and beckoned them both over.

The two guards looked at Tarklie with no small amount of suspicion. She could clearly tell they were intimidated by her superior armaments, but in the presence of Maris there was probably little they’d do to stop her strolling right in. They shouted up to some men above the makeshift log wall and the turned a wheel to raise the wooden gate. It looked strong enough to withstand a small breeze, and was visibly weathered by age and its fair share of battles.

Once through the gate, the tunnel opened impossibly wide, revealing a whole bustling world underneath the dark and humming mountain.

Project #2 – Act 2: The Torch of the Shard Pt1

Act II – The Torch of the Shard

“I’m telling you, I saw the dead fucker drop from the sky! No wings though. The damned things burst from the floor and now the sneaky biters are dropping from the friggin trees.” Taff scratched what little hair remained on his greasy head, peeling skin flowing onto his shoulders like snowfall Grixis had never seen.

“Since the big points started getting pokey with each other the dead just aren’t the same.” He sighed, flashing his head from left to right, anticipating another falling corpse.

“Zombies don’t climb trees Tuft. What business do you think they have in trees?” His partner Dirney replied as he hefted another sack of looted goods onto the wagon.

“It’s Taff. And I saw it with me own eyes. Had long hair like it was a deadun for a while like. Although it looked much too clean.”

“Tell that to the hair on your head Tuft. So the zombies don’t just climb and do a little skydivin onto unsuspecting folk, but they bath now too?” He shoved the load as far back onto the wagon as he could, ignoring his jumpy companion.

“I’m tellin you, I saw the bloody thing. Went face first into the ground like a sack of bones. Only it was more of a squelch and a bonk. The dead don’t squelch or bonk Dirn, they crunch cus they don’t have no packaging.” Taff slapped his belly. He beat the odds of starvation on Grixis somehow and sported a particularly rotund midsection. Nobody knew where on earth he got the food he ate, or even what he ate at times. Many wondered if he sustained himself by eating half the treasures and scrap he robbed.

“I’m gonna bonk you so hard you’ll wish you had fallen out a tree if you don’t help me shift this god forsaken wagon out of this hellhole.” Dirney spun the handle of a mallet around his hand and made a swinging motion as if he were ready to play a game of whack-a-corpse.

Taff shuffled across towards the wagon, eyes glued to the trees up ahead, clutching an old mining pickaxe in his two hands.

“Could be necromancers, if there’s one-UNFFF!” Taff dropped to the ground flailing his weapon around wildly. Dirney pulled back the butt of his mallet back from the fat squealers head.

“You’re right Tuft, you do squelch cus of the packaging. Now SORT THIS WAGON!” Dirney flew off into a rage, out the clearing of the trees and towards the path they were following to the hermitage.

Taff sat on his haunches and rubbed his throbbing head. He checked his with his hands for signs of blood, and brought one down to check what the damage was. Mixed in among the sticky substance were some of his precious few hairs. He let out a little sob and then screwed his teary face up into an expression of an angry child ready for a screaming match with its parents. He had something else in mind.

He rolled his weight forward to bring his round build up to stand and hefted his axe in one hand, and then started toward the swampy outcrop through the trees. If he couldn’t bash Dirney’s head in (he was the one paying him after all), he could bash that wingless falling bag of mulch right back into the ground. Or the trees. He might just throw it back into the trees. Maybe it’d find peace there. Perhaps it was some tree dweller in a past life, like one of those cat men he had heard so much about prowling around the other big point beyond Jund. With any luck the dragons had eaten the lot of the tree pouncers. Dead people made sense, humans made sense. The odd demon was a simple fact of life. But cats that walked about like men? That just wasn’t right in the world.

“I’ll grind the furry scamp up into the dirt. Can’t come back then can it. Can’t be droppin on people’s heads. Just ain’t right…”

He trudged towards where he thought the landing site might be, his rage filled confidence quickly disappearing as he realised how isolated he felt. The bump on his head was painful and he was beginning to worry that some nearby corpses might smell his fresh rich blood. His stubbornness pushed him on; he needed to do this for himself. He’d do some quick smashing and then haul the wagon back to Torchlight. It was getting awfully dark, and the tree’s shadows were dancing all around him. He popped his head around the trees looking for the spot, and then cold hard earth slowly began to turn to mush.

He pulled his brown tatty coat tighter around his protruding belly and began to lighten his footsteps as the watery ground began to emphasize each movement. Suddenly this was not such a good idea, and he’d rather not see what a cat-man looked like in person, in a less than living state. He had been so distracted he had no idea which way was where. The trees all looked like the same deathly husks littered with staring broken faces. He stopped to grab his bearings, an all but impossible task for a dense scavenger like himself. He spun one way and shifted his gaze across to an object that didn’t match its surroundings.

He held his breath, trying to hold in the little yelp prying itself out of his lips. Lying there face down in the mud was not a cat man, a dead man, or a man of any kind. Before his cowardly eyes lay a woman with shining red hair, inlaid with some kind of metal strands. She was bigger than any woman he had seen on Grixis, full bodied and remarkably healthy looking. She was strapped to the teeth in armour, a dark elegant spear in one hand and the largest shield he’d ever seen. Her skin was all wrong. It was a lighter brown like it had been kissed by the sun on bant, but metal rods and plates ran through it, with no surgical lines in sight.

She looked like half human half machine, and built for battle.

“Bloody Vedalken experiments.” He gasped, knuckles white from channelling his fright from hands to axe shaft.

He tip toed towards her, heart begging to be torn out his chest through the inches of fat that held it choked in place. The closer her got the further above his head he raised the axe, and by the time he was just a few meters away he was fully prepared to bring it down on her half-human head.

The woman groaned, steam licking its way across her armour, hair and weapons as though she had been a victim of a lightning strike. She heaved to one side and turned her head up towards the pudgy figure looming over her. All she could see was a face full of terror and an axe falling through the night towards her. The swing was feral and wide and the adrenaline rushing through her veins urged her to dodge despite her limbs screaming in agony. His axe sunk straight into the stodgy mud and suction prevented him from pulling it back out. This time he couldn’t hold back a whimper and instead of running or using any other means of attack at his disposal, he fumbled at his axe haft.

Ting!

The noise rang out behind the trees and Taff turned his head to see where it came from, fearing another interloper was waiting in the dark to complete a cunning trap. The stranger woman hauled herself up with her shield, still dazed from her ordeal and rapidly trying regain some sense of sanity.

Ting!

It was closer, this time Taff thought the sound came from right on top of him.

“YEEEEEEEOOOOOOW!” He cried as a crippling pain blasted from his leg to his brain. He looked down to find his left foot had been cut clean through, next to him sat a tiny round little construct, no more imposing than a wandering fowl. The big deep lenses on its fist sized head looked on at him in childish confusion. A little compartment opened and out came a sharpened machete-like blade and it slipped his way through his other foot. Its eyes still looked at him with what seemed like glee, wondering how Taff was processing this latest turn of events. How did that make you feel?

He fainted, bleeding profusely from his ankles.

Tarklie could barely focus on the all the commotion. Her body felt crisp at the edges and every muscle in her body told her of the marathon it thought it had been running. She heard a high pitched chiming and a scream, followed by a thud as her short round attacker slumped to the floor. She leaned over to decipher the situation, her eyes met only by a quickly expanding pool of blood and a gentle looking machine peering at her curiously through preposterously large mechanical eyes. It sat a few feet away from her face, wobbling on its spherical movement system. The sphere was silky smooth, soiled only by the debris of this soft and mulchy forest floor. It had a bulbous bulging chest, no visible arms and a bizarrely large head, seemingly only such an enormous size to contain its rather large ocular devices. It rolled gently a little closer, a compartment opened from its filigree chest, and out came a little fork like arm, which it proceeding to clang against its base.

Ting!

“Hello there little golem. Where is this?” Tarklie whispered. Her voice was strained and hoarse.

Her little saviour seemed charmingly pleased with this endearment of “golem” and proceeded to wiggle side to side, roll around in a circle and bang its arm instrument some more.

Ting! Ting! Ting!

Back it came, looking longingly into her eyes as if waiting for instructions.

“My god, was it really necessary relieve this man of his feet?” A mysterious lady’s voice echoed as she trod from around a tree.

Tarklie immediately swooped to her feet, raising her spear and shield up. Her legs quivered with intense strain and her spear point bobbed about in the air as her arms struggled to maintain a fighting stance. The little golem sprang up in surprise and wheeled itself behind a branch, eyes poking above to gaze innocently at their new acquaintance.

“Woah steady there gal, I’m not here to clobber your head in like that carrot-brained brute. Even if I were I think I’d rather prefer to keep my extremities.” The lady put her hands up in the air, still stepping about the place in a gentle fashion, as though the ground weren’t worthy of her steps.

She turned to the wide-eyed construct. “Now don’t give me that petal, you can’t go adopting every living thing you come across. That man might’ve fallen on you and squished your little face. Or worse, you could find yourself hanging as an ornament on that rather aggressive looking spear.” She beckoned it over with a backwards wave of a hand. “Don’t play coy with me!”

Tarklie watched as the little bundle of death spun slowly around the log and looked down in a sulk. It peered back up to Tarklie’s face, shot out a little fork-hand wave and wheeled itself around to the lady’s feet.

“I don’t think that fat oaf is coming around any time soon. Curious choice of how to mortally wound a man, rather a savage end. I suppose if he comes back alive as one of those things, which he inevitably will, he won’t give much of a chase!” The lady looked at Tarklie and gave a little forced laugh. It seemed she thought Tarklie was responsible for the grisly scene.

She was wearing some form of flowing cloth, not a scrap of metal running through her body. She had to be at least thirty in age; her skin was pale but showed few signs of aging or any kind of hardship, but she had a stern and intelligent look about her. She wore her hair up in a tightly bound nest, like a hive as black as the swamps of the Dross. Or this swamp, there was very little difference besides the presence of life. The boots she wore were impractical for any kind of venture in a place such as this. None of it made any sense. There were no signs of metal anywhere. The trees smelled like nothing she had ever known, the ground gave way in a soft and bouncy kind of way, and so far the only two humans she had come across were pure skin and hair. Only the small golem gave her any kind of familiarity.

“Comes back as a Phyrexian? Where is this?” Tarklie had too many questions but the importance of where the nearest danger might be was top of her list.

“A what? Darling if we don’t shimmy on back to Torchlight sharpish, that man is going to get awful sickly looking and start growing an appetite for yours truly. I don’t know what a fixian is but where I come from the dead usually get recycled by any old passing necromancer in need of a valet.” The lady nodded her head in another direction.

“Oh, and this is Grixis my little warrior princess. Am I to presume you crossed over from Bant or some such place? I hear they’re quite the producer of warriors like yourself over there.” She looked at Tarklie expectantly.

“I… yes. Bant.” Tarklie rubbed her head. Better to play along until she got her bearings. Something about this woman seemed remarkably off. She seemed blissfully unaware that her robot companion was a cold blooded killer, and she was strangely overdressed to be climbing around in a forest, much less detouring to this fetid pool. Wherever Bant was, Tarklie looked like one them. This place was Grixis, and she wanted to return somewhere called Torchlight. There were no good calls in this situation. She needed to see where this lady led her. She didn’t look particularly capable of taking on a seasoned warrior, but then her noisy little companion might take great pleasure in lopping off a few limbs.

“Excellent! Delighted to stumble across you and all, but as you can tell I do not belong in a place like this. You look like you were once capable of protecting something, but perhaps we can help one another get to some civilised part of this hellish ground. My name is Maris Darlet.” She took a few strained steps forward hoping to avoid the sticking substances littered across the ground and offered Tarklie a velvet gloved hand.

“Tarklie.” She took it and shook it.

“My what a… strong name. Now I’d love to chat over the finely aged gentleman that lies at your feet, but we need to get a move on. Everywhere on Grixis can turn quite monstrous quite quickly, and neither of us are in any condition to deal with some roaming demons… now, let’s mooch.” And with that she turned and scuttled down the path, aimlessly avoiding patches of sludge on the ground only to sink into others, her pet in tow.

Ting!

“Oh, and this is Ting.” She shouted behind her.

Ting! Ting!

“He has a tendency to get on one’s nerves exceedingly quick, but he’s become rather a fond colleague.” She waved her arms in the air and continued down a non-existent path, chatting to herself, or Ting, Tarklie couldn’t tell.

Project #2 – Act 1: The Last Mirran Pt4

The more she thought about this conversation, the harder her eyes pried open the girl that sat before her. She still sat and looked on at Kemba nonchalantly. Stroking that paw. She had a look that said I own this place about her, and her face as still stuck with that reassuring motherly expression. Stroking that paw. Come to think of it, Duli had been in the tent before anyone else had arrived. She had been sat in that chair from the moment Kemba had walked in and ushered in the rest of the group. She hadn’t stood up, or even moved.

The stroking stopped.

Duli’s paw stopped mid-air as the two females fired questioning bolts at each other’s eyes, Duli’s face not even so much as flinching or deviating from that fabricated smile. She almost looked like she was challenging her Kha, willing her to find an answer so the whole charade could be out in the open.

“Stand.”

“My Kha…?” an innocent child’s questioning expression rolled across the young cat’s face.

“Stand.” Kemba pulled her spear from its resting point and held it ready should Duli take a leap.

“Very well…” she sighed as though this were all some kind of inconvenience.

She kept her eye’s locked with her Kha’s and flowed from the chair to a standing position. She crossed her arms, stroking at an elbow, and raised a challenging eyebrow.

“If that’s all, I’ll be leaving you to your mental acrobatics.” Duli turned and went to exit the tent.

A seer in the service of the Kha would never have acted with such insolence. Kemba was furious and yet couldn’t decipher the reason for such a personality change in one of her most trusted followers. As she watched her servant float across the room she found her eyes locked onto her back, her flowing robes snagging on protruding points all down Duli’s spine. It brushed and clung and scraped until it slowly tore across the texture, revealing a dark and sickly spine bursting out of the Leonin’s skin.

“Skinstealer!” Kembo shouted both to the thing that stood before her and any nearby warriors that might hear her. She pointed her spear forward, tip aimed and steady in preparation for a thrust.

The thing that wore her seer’s fur turned to face Kemba once more, this time revealing a biologically impossible smile for a Leonin. Duli’s skin stretched and ripped as a metal beast burst from within, unpacking its limbs and proboscis made of a mix of flesh and diseased metal. Leonin blood ran down the beasts body as the remaining fur and skin slumped to the floor along with the imposter’s clothes. There was no real face to it, just a disproportionately sized head and far too many teeth.

A trio of guards burst into the tent ready to come to their leader’s aid, but they immediately stopped in their tracks, stunned at the sight of flesh, metal and a pile of folded Leonin remains. The point man roared and thrust a spear in the Phyrexian’s face region, but the blow glanced off the side of its armoured jaw. The other two leapt forward, spears plunging towards the beast’s belly. Before they could make contact it raked its claws wide, batting the spears out the way like children’s toys. It thrust an arm as long as a man toward one of the guards and skewered its claws through the Leonin’s face, quickly retracting them to dispatch the remaining two. Kemba had already taken flight towards the beast, aiming between the oily iron ribs with the tip of her spear. It plunged through thick and sinuous flesh, but the thing twirled around with Kemba stilled holding on to the spear, tossing her off to one side into the chairs around the table. The other two guards took the opportunity to thrust their weapons into the front of the invader, pinning it out of reach as it lurched and struggled.

Kemba leapt up and grabbed a golden ceremonial shield hung from one of the tent’s posts. She held it in both hands and swung with her whole bodyweight into the handle of her spear still poking out of the Phyrexian’s back.

It struck and planted the spear further into its body. She slammed the shield into the handle again, so hard the handle disappeared into its flesh and the tip burst out of the other side. The monster suddenly fell silent and crumpled itself into a pile of meat with three Leonin poles protruding from its corpse. The two guards that had come to Kemba’s aid were quickly joined by a small group of scouts that had heard the commotion. Kemba stood there panting for a moment.

“Kha Regent, are you alright?” An aged but plucky scout held his fingers wrapped around the handle of his long curved dagger.

“I am…” she looked to her guards and then towards the one that had fallen to the Phyrexian. “… We are.”

“How did it make it into the camp… into… Duli?” she questioned under her breath, her sharp brows now furrowed in confusion.

She snapped her head up, pupils thinned.

“Scouts, call the front lines, get every guard and able man to the canyon entrance to Kul-“ Before she could finish there was a piercing screech, like a band of Leonin on the hunt, but it felt too strained and broken to her ears. All the nearby pairs of ears twitched in discomfort.

“Phyrexians from the Furnace!” A roar had come from distant in the camp, and within a fraction of a moment there were screams of survivors and Phyrexian abominations filling the air. Every male and female in the camp rushed out to see the commotion, greeted only by the sight of a wave of Urabrasks processors and compleated Leonin storming through the canyon from the mouth of Kuldotha.

“To the rear lines! To the rear!” Kemba roared as she threw on her regal armour, strapped a small golden shield to her left and held a spear and javelin in her right. She sprang through the mass of shelters heading straight for the impending force, bellowing orders at every Leonin soldier she passed.

There was only chaos, a deafening buzz of death and roars, living and mechanical. The Phyrexians had already ploughed through a dozen soldiers, the only ones able to make it to the canyon in time to draw a line of defence. The Leonin had dealt with small incursions from the nearby Praetors, but never the full strength of one. Urabrask was significantly weaker than his rivals, but he still commanded a hive of a few hundred. What caught the Leonin fighters off guard more was what Urabrask’s latest addition to the fold was.

Jal’en was a fierce fighter, nimble and trained with both sword and pole. Kemba had ruthlessly trained him alongside her small army to deal with the invading horrors of the plane. He was young and had much to learn, but he fought with the hopes of living up to a title. This Jal’en fought with a different kind of ferocity. This Jal’en was killing without thought, question, honour or remorse. He was no longer a Leonin; he was simply a wild machine of rage. He leapt and slashed wildly at anything in his path, more like a blood crazed animal than a cat with any kind of finesse. Many of Kemba’s men did a double take as they saw him closing the gap between them, unsure whether to defend themselves and making a decision much too late to matter. He had cut down dozens of Leonin, severely injuring most of them but never stopping to ensure their death. The line of processors saw to it that the bodies were seized and pulled away while the remaining Phyrexian fighting force tore through the camp like a crashing wave.

Kemba slowed to a stop, eyeing the battlefield that now spelled defeat for their small pocket of survivors. With her people nearly overwhelmed, she glanced back toward the canyon. A male Vulshok and a heavily armed woman wielding a blackened Leonin spear burst out and charged towards Urabrask’s rear lines. She had never seen a Geomancer so enraged. Koth’s body oozed with heat and his whole body was glowing like a furnace.

Her attention was quickly drawn back to the immediate threat as the screech from her fallen son’s shambling form was leaping between gaps in the camp towards her. Her heart sank as the world forced her to make a choice she never thought she could. She dropped her spear to the ground, spun the javelin round in preparation to launch it across the air. Her body froze. She could not breathe or remove her eyes from the target they were locked onto. Instead of launching the javelin through her foe in a righteous fury, she stood there stunned at her ordeal. Jal’en continued his lurching towards his mother without an iota of emotion displaying on his savaged face. There were blades growing from where his elbows used to be, metallic plates bolted onto his knees and thighs, and a flurry of jagged lumps of metal piercing through his chest and spine. It looked painful to behold, and yet her son seemed to feel nothing – Nothing but cold blooded desires to conquer his people.

Her lip trembled and her eyes streamed and clouded her vision. She breathed in sharply and then exhaled as she launched her javelin with every ounce of strength she had to give. She wanted to end her son’s suffering. The projectile spun through the air at breakneck speeds no Leonin of Phyrexian could track. With a dense thud it implanted itself through Jal’en’s skull and stopped him dead in the air, throttling his body backwards with the force. His body smashed into the ground and rolled haphazardly to an uncomfortable rest, arms and legs mangled in ways they shouldn’t be.

Kemba slumped to the ground on her knees, her armour clattering with the hard surface that offered no sympathy. Everything that was once Mirrodin was about to end. The total compleation of the plane was nearing its finish, and the Kha Regent would see it out with the image of her son’s mutilated form fresh in her mind.

Hot shards burst through the lines and Koth’s shield maiden had battered through the right wing of the Phyrexian force, Koth trailing behind blasting enemies to their sides with blunt but effective hits. They were heading straight for Kemba, no sign of her remaining guard amongst the commotion.

“Kha Regent!” Koth shouted. “Where is your guard?”

Kemba simply glanced over at the enormous stampede of Phyrexians raking away in the battle indiscriminately.

“Our people are done, Koth. We are the last Mirran.” Kemba drew herself up from the ground, bringing up her spear and shield and standing with the sole remaining pride of the Leonin on Mirrodin.

“We have a small refuge on the other side of the Furnace.” Koth began.

“Do you see Urabrask?” Kemba asked. “You do not, because his forces are there. His forces are compleating any survivors that were stupid enough to believe we could enjoy the Phyrexian’s domain without cost. He needed to build his force, and we presented the opportunity.”

“We have not heard from the Vulshok, we have not heard from the Humans, and we have not heard from the Elves. Mirrodin is no more.” She turned to face Tarklie, and looked in turn between the two of them.

“We are the last of our kinds.”

For the first time, Tarklie saw Koth say and do nothing. She had seen him fight the Phyrexian invasion with fire and fury for all of his years, refusing to give up, allowing his anger to drive him through the steep odds. Now all he could do was look on at the plains behind them.

“There is nothing left for us to do except ensure we do not fall to become one of them.” Kemba started.

“There is one last thing I can do.” Koth said, rummaging around in his satchel.

He pulled out the journal again, this time popping the book open to a specific page bookmarked with a rugged red ribbon. His hand sunk into the satchel once more to bring out a vial and a disk with four clamps on its outer edges. Across it were blocky etchings and a hollowed out centre with lines all conjoining to a point. He slotted the vial into the disk and began muttering, pulling mana from around the plains and charging the disk.

“What is that?” Tarklie asked, now concerned that the Phyrexian horde was rumbling their way. She readied her shield and mace.

“Venser saved the Golem Karn. He gave his heart and with it restored his power to travel the planes. With this I can do the same for Mirrodin.” Koth clicked the vial into place and his body glowed.

“What do you mean? Escape this plane Koth while you still can!” Tarklie was growing ever more worried that the Phyrexians were nearly on top of them.

“Go Vulshok; tell these planes of our fate.” Kemba turned and stood to take on the incoming horde.

“I cannot do it anymore. If I can save a single Mirran from this fate, I will.” He turned to Tarklie. “And I intend to.”

He thrust the disk onto Tarklie’s chest and his body exploded with a flash as bright as the five suns combined. Koth’s body and Kemba were thrown back a few hundred feet and Tarklie was gone, not so much as a spec to mark her existence where she once stood.

She had hit the ground hard, her lungs screaming for air after it had been squeezed out of her. She had a fit of coughs that hurt as much as they helped. Kemba’s head spun, the impact dazing her and removing any sense of direction. It was not like a cat to been blown into the air and spun in so many directions, and that was a feeling she had no desire to repeat. Not that she’d get the chance anyway given their current situation. She tried to compose herself, steadying her breathing as she lay on the floor, eyes adjusting to the Red sun inhabiting the middle of the sky.

“Koth. Where did she go?” Kemba sat up and groaned, suddenly aware of a few broken bones throughout her body. She winced as an intense pain in her chest put her back on the ground.

“What was that thing?” She spluttered.

Still nothing from the Vulshok laying a few feet away from her.

She rolled over; arm outstretched to push the geomancer on the shoulder, but before her fingers could touch his rocky skin interweaved with veins of metal, she withdrew. The steady heat from his body was gone. He held no more glow from the cracks in his chest and shoulders, and his body lay crumpled in the way that only the dead could express.

“Your war is over Koth.”

Kemba slumped back to the floor, her arms wrapped across her chest and she closed her eyes. She was bleeding badly in her insides, her vision slowly slipping out. Mirrodin’s last Leonin lay dying next to its last Vulshok, with only a human left to tell the tale of the plane’s last day, wherever she may have gone.

***

It burned like ten hells. Her body collapsed in on itself and all she could feel was the atmosphere around her burning away at her body. She was like a virus inside a body that didn’t want her there, and it was showing her its full force. She hurtled through darkness lit with stars, but the stars showed pictures amongst the invisible flames that lashed at her. Behind the incinerating force that beat away at whatever was protecting her, she saw images of a land without a sky. She saw vast open seas completely unlike the quicksilver sea. She saw grasslands without razor wheat, bogs filled with rats ten times their typical size, cities dark and tall and cramped, and volcanic skies filled with immense menacing birds. The darkness pounded at her again, this time so hard it felt like her body’s existence was being bent and bruised. The disk on her chest glowed with power but was slowly fading, and with it the pain of this place was growing. If this device failed, her body would be ripped apart in a fraction of a blink of an eye.

Her body seemed to be following a course. A course Koth had set for her in hopes she would survive the fall of Mirrodin and completion of New Phyrexia. She looked ahead to the star her spirit was falling towards and saw fractures melding into one another. An image of rich fields, a land of trees and smoke, great seas sitting beneath blue spark lit skies, and deep jungle with hulking creatures, and a land consumed with darkness and death. She yearned for sunlight, the promise of real air to breath, and soft ground to lie down and forget she existed.

“Little one.” A fatherly voice echoed from the eternities.

“I cannot return, I am not finished.”

Tarklie felt her body being screened and cleansed as she fell away from the emptiness towards the varied images below her. It stripped her bare, offering some relief from the scorching eternity before it all came rushing back in a flash. Behind her she saw a tall stoic figure looking down at her while she fell, a certain sorrow emanating from his brilliantly crafted face.

The burning faded. Her body continued to fall, this time with the pull of real ground, and the darkness of the Blind Eternities was replaced with another, more real sense of night. Her limp frame slapped into the bog with a wet thump.

Project #2 – Act 1: The Last Mirran Pt3

“What is it you want from us…” his voice was hoarse and laboured, as though the simple effort of living was draining him by the second.

He crawled slowly, suspiciously across a terribly uneven portion of the cave wall. Despite the sound of his struggle with existence, he slithered from spot to spot with almost no effort, almost fluid. Not once did he look these visitors in the eyes. Urabrask rarely looked directly at anything, almost permanently engaged in some inner conundrum. His lot in life was to be permanently at odds with his kind’s higher purpose and the emotions that flooded him and his brood from the abundance of red mana.

“We cannot protect ourselves anymore. Our wards fail, the force of the Mother of M… the Machine Orthodoxy will soon sweep across our remnants. We must join a force… to survive.” The leader of the expedition was visibly sweating a gallon of bodily fluids, the trek down to the deepest reaches of Kuldotha was one of searing heat and a winding tunnel network. These once proud warriors were now a mangled, exhausted and dishevelled mess.

Urabrask twitched his head at the mention of a leader of the machines, but resumed his prowling to a location unknown, even to himself. He looked on as some of his shambling Phyrexian whelps were repairing some of his heavily damaged fighters. They melted metal from piles of dead Mirran and Phyrexian alike then pasted it on gouges and dents like gauze on a wound.

“You would sacrifice your way of life, existence…” he paused while a thought consumed his attention. “… to join my paltry ranks.” He peered down towards the floor, inspecting a route as he changed his course like an eel had discovered some prey.

The two dozen Leonin that stood before him shifted uneasily on their paws. Their faces were drained; their will was as distant as their remaining pride. Some of the younger soldiers among them darted their eyes back and forth at the lumbering terrors that patrolled around Urabrask’s domain, evidently at war with their desire to kill every last invader and their brain telling them the energy to do so was non-existent. They had come here with one goal. They would be compleated into Urabrask’s fold and sacrifice their desire to live with free will in order to survive the incoming tide of the other four Praetor’s forces, or simply die here with no hope to return. Many of the Leonin back at their surviving camp had no idea they were here, nor did they know this group was actively forfeiting their lives on their behalf. Kemba would have ordered them all executed at the thought, but they had lost faith in simply surviving on borrowed time. The time for existing with no purpose was over. It was adapt or die, but in this case they were nearly one and the same. It was a choice of which death was preferable.

“If we are to die, we do not wish to continue on in death serving the Orthodoxy.” The leader of the group hung his head low. He was the oldest member of the group, but still young for one of his kind. The life expectancy for his race had hit a severe decline.

“And the outsiders within my domain… they will join with you?” the red Praetor had made his way to the ground, now circling towards the group as some of his processors moved in to join him.

Half a dozen Leonin clutched their weapons, arms tensed and legs ready to spring into action. The rest had no desire to prevent an onslaught.

“They do… but they do not know it yet.” A number of eyes in the group beamed into the back of his mane, silently berating him despite being present in this plan. “We can provide you with the location of the rest of our people, as well as the encampment used by the Planeswalker Koth.”

Urabrask stopped dead, and turned his leathery head to the cat he was speaking to. He looked him dead in the eyes, his pupils growing larger and blacker as though he’d caught the scent of prey. There was a dead silence in the air, crackling with tension broken only by the hum of Phyrexians hard at work in the distance. A thought leapt into his mind and he tilted his head once more. He grinned with fangs of steel and terror, inches long and grisly from erosion.

“She will be pleased with this…”

Sudden realisation dawned on Jal’en, son of Kemba, the Kha Regent of the last Leonin. He had betrayed his people and his family in a misguided attempt to save his people, to protect their existence, like his mother. In the time his jaw had hung low from his folly, Urabrask had already covered the distance between them, his processors already bearing down on the hapless group. His body was wracked backwards, his arms falling from his hands. There was nothing in his brain left to tell him how to fight off the attack, only shame and the subtle realisation that fighting against the infection of this plane was entirely futile all along.

Swords and spears were ripped from the soldiers, many with limbs still attached. Two Leonin were still ready for a stand but were quickly torn to pieces. The rest had simply been dismembered and dragged off for compleation, some screaming while others remained utterly silent in horror. Urabrask raked at Jal’en’s armour, tearing parts of skin off with his teeth before moving to his arms and legs and snapping them in two with his hands in an almost practised fashion. He was not enjoying himself, nor was there any disgust. This was simply the way things were done. He tossed the young Leonin’s screaming body like ragdoll onto his back and made towards the rooms where they’d be brought into the fold. The processors with various parts of Leonin, some alive, some dead, followed close behind.

***

There were distant wails and roars from cat warriors deep in the tunnels. Almost immediately after there was a deep drum of a moving army, and the ground itself felt like it was shifting beneath their feet. Tarklie turned to look at Koth, and was greeted only by a wide eyed face and a shrug of the shoulders.

“I don’t think the Leonin found what they were hoping for.” Tarklie turned to face the dark distance of the tunnel ahead, listening for any approaching groups, friendly or foe.

“And perhaps neither will we.” Koth added.

There were sounds of approaching screeches echoing forth from the pitch black. They were only a few minutes away judging from the indistinguishable cacophony of noise. Tarklie put her spear out and shield up like a single soldier phalanx and turned to Koth.

“Where is closer? The Kha Regent or our encampment?”

Koth spent a moment shuffling the information around in his head. He fumbled into his pack and pulled out the old dusty book once more, flickering through the pages and drawing imaginary lines with his fingers.

“Quick man!” Tarklie yelled as the stampede of limbs thundered closer.

“Let me think!” Koth bellowed as he blasted the wall further down and brought melted rock down to block the path ahead.

Tarklie seethed with frustration at Koth’s hasty act. The geomancer always had such a tightly coiled temper, and now he had left them with fewer options.

“The Leonin survivors.” Koth slapped the journal together. “Back up the passage and through a tube that feeds into the main causeway.” He looked up at the ceiling of the tunnel. “It’ll be tight.”

Before agreeing Tarklie barged past Koth and trampled up the tunnel. Koth gave his handiwork further down a cursory glance. It wouldn’t buy them much time, the Phyrexians would likely make quick work of it if the prior art they had seen was anything to go by. He turned to follow her and ran through everything they had done in his head. They had abandoned the camp and come all this way for nothing. He had no idea what state the remaining Leonin were in, or even if there would be any left at this point. Urabrask mobilising his small force had been confusing since he couldn’t hope to stand against the other Praetors with what he had left. The only things nearby was the abandoned Great Furnace halls and the scattered camps of Mirran resistance.

He and Tarklie were between all three, and he could not protect everyone.

“How many survivors between all the camps?” he shouted ahead at Tarklie.

“Why?” she echoed back, panting through gritted teeth as her armour clanged haphazardly against narrowing walls.

“The Leonin, Kemba, our camp, the other survivors. How many are there surrounding Kuldotha?”

“A few hundred… maybe a thousand all accounted for. Why does it matter?”

“And how well armed are they for an attack… from inside.” Koth caught up with his companion, his brow furrowed in concern.

“They’re…” Tarklie stopped. “They’re not.”

RUN! RUN TO THE KHA REGENT!” He bawled as they both charged down the tunnel.

***

It was one of the few remaining encampments on the surface, shrouded on one side by a large embankment on one side. It sat just outside one of the canyon mouth entrances to the Great Furnace. With such an environment it made it easy to hold off an attack from outsiders, Phyrexian and Mirran alike. The Leonin were used to harsh terrain, but not such a heat as this. It was uncomfortable but tolerable, at least in comparison to the phyresis that would be promised elsewhere. The dwelled in tents and small makeshift shacks banded together with sheet metal they were able to scavenge from their past homes and from inside the forge city. A few hundred had made this camp their final home, one of the last shelters available to a Mirran of sound mind. Kemba had kept them safe for this long, and the strong enchantments from the healers and seers had kept them safe from the encroaching infection of Mirrodin.

While the Auriok and Human survivors had trembled in caves and lost a large portion of their fighters, the Leonin were still heavily armed, with most of the remnants knowing nothing more than how to fight. They had survived near the surface in defiance of Elesh Norn and her lesser counterparts, and miraculously fended off more than one incursion from the Orthodoxy and Sheoldred. Lately things had begun to turn for the worse. Significantly so.

Kemba had been informed that the Praetor council meeting had been a hoax, and Koth had achieved nothing with his spell bomb besides creating and even large hole inside the core of Mirrodin. Fewer natives of the plane remained, and as their number dwindled, the Phyrexians grew larger. They had not heard word from any of the other pockets of resistance in such a long time, they had been presumed defeated.

The Kha Regent of the last Leonin paced in her tent, still adorned in golden oddities of their people despite these times of difficulty, yet another act of defiance in the face of utter defeat.

“They have been gone for over a day. My own son risking the defence of his people and we have no idea what for.” She snarled across as she looked on at her high seer and captains of the guard.

“He took nearly thirty of the soldiers. They were well armed, although not well seasoned. They were mostly fresh bloods.” A captain stepped forward, nearly as old as Kemba herself, but this war had made him looked twice his age.

“I think he seeks a pact with Urabrask.” Kemba’s young seer, Duli, spread her hands palms up, in a calm and serene manner. A gentle face with almost no expression of fear beamed at her leader. “He has, after all, allowed us to remain here at his expense.”

“He is weak.” Kemba spat back at her. She softened her approach to the young girl immediately; she had been serving her well under the circumstances. “He has had little choice but to allow us to remain here. We were told his little rebellion was dispensed with by all the other Praetors in unison. He is an outcast and a disease, unworthy of our attention.” Kemba slammed her spear to the ground, and her guests did the same.

“My Kha, we are living on borrowed time. I imagine he was desperate to follow in your footsteps…” Duli continued. Kemba simply stared at her with some unease.

“He did not need to prove himself…” She carried on staring at Duli, inspecting her eyes. They were that same shade of crisp golden light, almost shining. Her fur was feckless white with deep waves of brown and tawny speckles, and she sat with almost deliberate ease. Something about her had changed. None of this phased her seer, while some of her guardsman were clearly worried about what this turn of events meant for their people’s future.

“We will talk about your thoughts on this later.” She nodded towards the young cat, dismissing her. “Kephit, Captain Vema, ensure there is a lookout near the entrance to Kuldotha, if my son returns I would like to know, and ensure the full garrison is available to defend the entrance from the plains. I want tight shifts tonight.” The three males left the tent, Kemba stood ushering them out, Duli simply looking on at her Kha with indifference.

“You don’t seem concerned for my son’s safety in his endeavour.” Kemba scraped a claw along the table as she strutted towards her seer.

“Jal’en likely gets his keenness from you. His wisdom too.” She moved her eyes from the emptiness to look in her Kha’s face with a reassuring smile.

“Am I to assume that my son has told you, my seer, what his plans are upon entering the domain of Urabrask, and that you have failed in your duty to inform me?” Kemba sat, propping her spear along the edge of the table.

“I am afraid I can only speculate on his plans. I saw him personally enter the canyon towards the Great Furnace and immediately informed you.” Duli stroked one paw with another.

“And what are your speculations young seer?” Her chair creaked as she tightened her posture.

“A pact.”

Kemba’s eyes glowered.

“A pact between our people and the lord of the land they now occupy.”

We cannot make a pact with a disease.” Kemba growled between clamped jaws.

“Phyrexians do not work with other races. They incorporate them!”

Project #3 – Chapter 1: Age 7 Pt3

Project #3 – Here’s the final part of the first Chapter and the end of our time with Stephen as a 7 year old. Next up we’ll dive into another part of Stephen’s life, and hit up the teenage years. Dana is bound to crop up somewhere, probably uninvited.

To read the last entry, go here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/project-3-chapter-1-age-7-pt2/

To read from the beginning, go here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/project-3-chapter-1-age-7/

***

There was so much light. Bare bulbs of  deep dark reds were interweaved with glowing warm yellows, each one dimming just slightly as if dancing to a silent tune. The walls were clad in thick silky wallpapers from times of old, stripy reds and whites here, entire feature wall-sized murals of play parks hand painted along an entire length of the room. The room itself was gargantuan, not separated by walls or cubicles, but sectioned into a million themes by machines and booths arranged in clumps of individual magic. For once, Stephen finally felt warm. He stood there stunned, even as Dana shot off down a haphazard aisle, weaving between machines and vacant chairs like some kind of jet pilot.

“It’s this way Stephen!” She shouted back at him, bringing him back to this bizarre reality.

But there’s so much here to do.

As if answering his thoughts Dana gave him the same old reason. “We don’t have time to do it all. You can come back later.” He couldn’t distinguish where her voice was echoing from.

Come back from where?

Within moments she bared down on him from the side, throwing an arm around his waist. She was fast, and she must have known the place like no other. She slid her arm from his waist, down his arm, this time holding his hand more gracefully, without any semblance of threat.

“Come on. We’ll get you a matching one of these” She held up her ball in the palm of her hand. Stephen hadn’t remembered giving it back, or where she might have stored it. He was too lost in wonderment to care.

“OK.” For the first time Stephen couldn’t help but offer her a genuine smile of excitement.

They meandered down the room through the aisle that Dana had steamed down earlier, this time at a pace that felt more calming. He didn’t spend a single second looking down the path they were travelling, instead allowing his gaze to wander and soak in everything around him. Booths stood tall and taut, their entrances beckoning them in with promise of fortune and fun. There were balls and theatrical hammers, makeshift futuristic guns of brass that probably fired dried peas, hoops and rods. It was truly a fair from a time long before he was born, but he didn’t mind. It was as though this place had sucked the entire colour and life from the entire town and offered it in a torrential downpour to any fortunate enough to breach its doors.

Dana pulled him around a corner made of tall brass machines demanding change for the chance to offer a price of some description – None explicitly mentioned what. In front of him laid a group of five booths, all identical in form. Each of them had cages and nets full of the same cloud filled balls that Dana had been slamming against the bedroom wall when he had arrived. There were more than just grey ones, there were stripes and dots, ones with swirls that were see-through, and even plain ones ingrained with sparkling glitter. None of them were manned by anyone, yet each one had been perfectly set up as if never touched for centuries. Stephen looked around; there was nobody here but the two of them. He wondered if Dana had simply taken hers by force somehow, but couldn’t see a way to unlock the cages or reach the nets. She tugged him closer to the tent-like structure, and it offered a small raised wooden platform for its shorter visitors. It was well worn unlike the others, as if it had been eroded away by an excessive amount of visitors. Dana pulled him up next to her, and he immediately saw the rules of the game.

There were nine coconuts of varying sizes, each with numbers painted on them. Across to one side read a sign:

Score Fifty

Get Something Nifty!

The words made him cringe; it was something his mum would have used to describe a tool that made scrubbing dishes faster. He already knew the prizes, what concerned him more was the unlikelihood of winning. There was a single coconut on a large plunger, pinned into the ground upside down. It was tiny, and happened to be the one marked 50. Surrounding it were eight others of different sizes, the six largest marked 10 were already about to fall off their preposterously sized platforms. Between these were the two deceivingly average ones, each marked 25. Dad had always told him these games were made to make winning nearly impossible without tremendous luck. Stephen looked across at Dana’s hand, still clutching hers in a balled fist. If she had won one, surely he could.

But she’s weirdly strong.

As if by some unknown prompt Dana reached over and swatted at a button in the centre of the desk in front of them. There was a winding and grinding behind the scenes and then six soft balls rolled their way down a small set of rails to their right, rolling onto the desk and stopping precisely in front of where wear marks on the floor lay.

“You get six throws.” Dana flashed a suspicious grin, as if she were in on the whole thing.

Stephen glanced back from her to the balls that lay in front of him. They looked like American baseballs, only without the red stitching or writing. He picked one up, weighed it in his palm and passed it between his hands. It felt dense, but there was a certain hollow nature to them. He looked back over to the smallest target. Can’t be that hard… He brimmed with over confidence for just a moment, before becoming a little nervous in his stomach as he prepared a throw. He suddenly considered that he might miss; he didn’t want to look stupid in front of Dana. She already spoke down to him and he wanted to prove her wrong.

Then I’ll show her that stupid grin.

He gripped the ball more tightly, wound back his arm, and then arched the ball over his head as if he were a bowler playing cricket. He hoped the high angle trajectory would be severe enough to knock his target straight off. It careened through the air a lot faster than he imagined, and in the brief moments it flew he rubbed his arm that now yelled at him for overexertion. He could see it was a perfect throw, and like a ballistic missile it pounded on the winning coconut with a heavy bonk.

The ball however simply bounced off like the hail pinged off the family car windshield. The coconut rolled around in its throne as if shifting in its sleep. Feeling immediate defeat, Stephen looked down towards Dana expecting some lengthy diatribe about how she was better. She merely curled her lips inward in hidden amusement before straightening her face.

“Try the easier ones. You can still do it with five.” This time she sounded a little more genuine.

His pride battered, he picked up another ball and simply tossed it half-heartedly at the ten-pointer on the far left. With a gentle knock it fell over, and he felt like a cloud of hope had washed over him again. He quickly composed himself, not wanting to jinx his chances on the next throw. One after another the next three large coconuts dropped like flies, and after the third one crashed to the floor he let out a gritted “Yiss!” through his teeth, punching his aching arm through the air. Throughout his performance Dana simply stood there looking onwards in careful consideration. He kept looking to her for some kind of response, whether it was admiration or jealousy, he didn’t care at this point. He wished she’d show something. The thought of her unnerved him despite his success. He just didn’t understand her, and within those brief moments the charade of fun this place had swarmed him with melted away. He was still lost, still alone.

He tossed the final ball in the air back into his hand in a cocky fashion, and tossed it as hard as he could. He winced in pain as a sharpness prodded its way through his shoulder at the last moment, sending his final ball off into the back of the canvas booth. Stephen stood there, eyes ablaze, body confused that he’d just failed after his amazing performance. He darted his eyes across to see how Dana would respond. Her face was already waiting for him, a dark maniacal grin as though it had been her plan all along. Stephen was about to burst, accuse her of setting up the whole thing, streaming a thousand excuses of why it was her fault that all this had gone the way it had.

He would have, at least, if she hadn’t held out her hand, grey swirling sphere outstretched towards him.

“Try the fifty now.” Her eyes bled through his skull.

She has such deep eyes.

As if possessed, he agreed to her curious offer, plucking the small bouncy ball out of her hand and lining himself up for the most troublesome target of all.

“Isn’t this cheating…” he wandered off as he pelted the tiny coconut with what was left with his might.

It hit its mark, shattering a piece of the outer shell off and sending the elastic projectile on a lightning speed trajectory headed straight for Dana. Before he could move an inch towards her or shout a warning, she pulled up both hands and caught it in both her cupped hands, without even the slightest flinch in her stature. He was about to ask her if she was OK before another set of mechanical gears began winding and clinking together. One of the upper cages opened by some imaginary force, releasing just a single identical ball to the one Dana had handed him. It bounced and weaved across the floor inside the small tent, hitting corners and scooting here and there before tumbling out past them and into the main floor of the Arcade. As if in a trance Dana immediately dived after it, scooting off to try and catch his prize.

Stephen turned back to the booth for a final look before going in search of his curious female friend, only to find the booth reset. The coconuts all lay back in their original positions, the smallest one he had decimated now in perfect condition. The numbers simply stared back at him in earnest disbelief that they had ever been knocked down. A wooden sign slammed down from above with a sharp clack!

You Lose!

“Stupid thing… I-“

Another sign slammed down from above it.

You Cheated!

His heart stopped.

Give it back little boy.

He screamed.

It wasn’t words, it wasn’t a name, he just yelled out in a high pitch terror. As if in answer, the Arcade switched off all its lights, all but the red ones. The entire contents of the massive building took on a dark red glow. It no longer had colour, it no longer held the promise of fun. Instead every machine, every booth, every word stared at him in a scarlet anger. He turned to run but the brass machines he and Dana walked past to get here were laid out in a line in front of him. They weren’t here to take his money for a prize. They were here to take him for not playing by the rules.

She made me do it.

He couldn’t reason with the machines, reason with the building. It wouldn’t understand. Dana was nowhere to be found. Had she tricked him into this? Had she tricked everyone in this town into giving themselves up to the maw of the Arcade? He didn’t understand any of it. I just want to go home. I need to hide under the quilt. I need to shut my eyes.

The moment he shut his eyes, blacking out the looming, angry machines, a voice commanded him from the side.

“We need to get out of here now. You have to go back.” It was Dana, no fear or worry in her voice, just this strong commanding presence.

He turned his head in her general direction, and opened his eyes, revealing her stern brow and piercing eyes in the red hue. She stood between a number of kiosks to one side and he bolted over to her no daring to look back at what might bare down on him. He was the one who reached out for her hand this time, begging her to drag him away from here as she did before. With their hands clasped together she led him on a path much like a maze, weaving in and out of the blur. It was hard to make anything out in this light. It singed away all the finer details of everything that surrounded him, making it either reflect that murderous glow, or absorb all the colours into blackness.

Within moments they were at the entrance, and with no sign of stopping or slowing Dana burst open the doors with a kick. In that moment time stopped. In that moment there was nothing. Just Stephen, Dana, and black.

“You’re going back now.” For the first time she smiled at him softly, in earnest.

“Back where?”

“I’ll see you again. I think you’ll be back. I’ll always be here to protect you.” She opened her palm and handed him his prize.

“You caught it…”

***

“Caught what Stephen?”

It was a voice. An older voice, from an adult, but it didn’t belong to Mum or Dad.

The light here is bright; I can feel it behind my eyelids. There’s a mask on my face. I’m in bed. It’s not my bed. At least it’s not there.

“Can you tell me if you remember what happened Stephen?” The older voice continued to quiz him, this time placing a finger on his eyelids, pulling one open.

It’s a doctor. There’s somebody else next to the bed. I can see her hands. It’s mum!

“Hey little man, are you feeling OK?” She was hiding a lump in her throat, she had been stood there as he stirred and was trying her hardest to contain the deluge of emotion.

“Now Stephen…” The doctor again. “…Can you tell me the last thing you remember in the playground?”

I was at school. It was break time. I remember now but I didn’t before… Laura Allen was playing kiss-chase with me… she always ran after me…

“A girl in my class was chasing me…”

“Did she hit you? Where did she hit you Stephen? I’ll call the school-“ His mother was growing frantic in an instant, failing to hold back the tide.

“She didn’t hurt me.” His voice felt a little coarse, but he felt so much safer already. “She just kissed me… it was a game…” He felt embarrassed. He looked at his mother, her cheeks were already flush and he could tell she was stifling a smirk, all panic stripped from her face.

“Well I think uh… that’s all we’ll need from your for now Stephen.” The doctor turned to his mother and started talking in a lower tone. “We’ll need to get these tests back to the lab for testing… could be a fit…” Stephen stopped paying attention when he noticed something clenched in one of his mum’s hands.

“…sounded like convulsions…”

He could barely make it out, but it was grey.

“…especially concerning for him to be comatose for several days…”

There was a pattern to it, with white running through it.

“…erratic brain function…”

It was a small ball, almost identical to the one from the Arcade.

His mother caught his staring eyes. “Oh, I got you this from a bric-a-brac shop. It’s a bouncy ball. I used to have some when I was younger and it always sent my mother in a state…”

He had stopped listening when she fully opened her hand, his eyes simply glared. It wasn’t the one that belonged to Dana, it had a different pattern, but it was the same colour. No, this was the one the Arcade claimed he stole from it, in a game stacked against him. He had won that ball unfairly, in a game built to be unfair, and Dana had helped him do it.

And now it was here. Not in his head, but in his safe place, his world.