Project #2 – Today Tarklie returns to the survivor camp on the outskirts of Kuldotha. She’ll meet with a familiar face before setting off on a journey to the Furnace Layer in a desperate attempt to reunite with other survivors of the plane.
To read the last entry, go here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/18/project-2-act-1-the-last-mirran/
To read from the beginning, go here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/prologue-dark-depths/
The cave was excessively deep, though most of the remaining survivors dwelled closer to the entrance in an enormous empty pocket. Despite its distance from the Great Furnace, a gentle heat oozed its way through the winding paths – the deeper you delved, the more the subtle heat leaked through your body. The walls were an almost smooth sheen of rough metal substances, tirelessly carved away by the tunnelling Phyrexians. If you shone a light across the caverns you could barely make out the wide arching scrapes across each of the surfaces, like a crash of waves immortalised in metal. The Phyrexian force was crafted for hostile takeover, but equally outfitted for their horrific ideal of compleating planes.
A brighter yellow hue filled the tunnels as they approached a larger room, and the light revealed the intricate details across their faces. The guards slowed to a shuffle, indicating they could go no farther. They needed to return to the entrance to complete their watch, and Tarklie required no escort.
“Thank you.” Tarklie nodded across at the two of them.
They nodded back and ducked away, trudging up the winding path that they had come through. It was merely seconds before they disappeared into the rising dark, but Tarklie’s face remained brightly warmed at the emanation of light before her. It was a gentle, magical force that danced across the cracks and dents in her armour. The shadows emphasised each blow her shield had taken, revealing the hundreds of scrapes across the now warm metal. Her face was pointed and her features sharp, but her battles had made it rough and her complexion coarse. As a battle hardened commander her hair was a wild shamble of fire and platinum, with strands falling here and there only loosely tied up with bands of common metals. She was born into battle and her visage showed it – every minute of fighting had left its mark, some emotionally deeper than others.
She wandering into the room, now faintly filled with a whispering bustle. This was the largest area, filled with the biggest portion of the surviving refugees of Mirrodin. There were numerous soldiers consulting one another, some clearly experienced, others having taken to the fight only recently out of self-preservation. There was little homely about the place besides the comforting tone of light. Makeshift beds and fabrics lay strewn about the place, and the only decorations adorning the floor and walls were tools of war. The resistance had made it here with nothing but the weapons and armour on their backs. A few faces turned to see their commander’s arrival, most expressed immediate disappointment as she entered the room alone, no sign of her small company. A couple of men diverted their attention to her and intercepted her course towards the only other exit out of the room. There was a certain regimental experience about them – fellow commanders of this pitiful remaining Mirran army.
“What news commander?” the first had inquired as he closed the gap between himself and his target for questioning.
“Commander Bryce…” Tarklie nodded shortly to the man that had addressed her.
“…And Commander Flock.” she finished, this time braving a fake twitch of the edges of her mouth, affording a much more composed and formal nod towards Bryce’s counterpart.
The move was evident to Bryce; his face winced for a split second in irritation but swiftly returned to its regimental form. Flock, on the other hand, afforded the female commander a small smile of commiseration. He knew the news was bad, but the look on Tarklie’s face was distant and showed pain. Heaping blame would serve no purpose for him or the survivors. Still, he imagined Bryce would hold no verbal blows.
“You left with seven, one of which was one of our finest and now most rare crusaders.” He snarled. “I pray their absence is either short-lived, or at the very least not entirely in vain. I presume by the look of your face and amour that the former is too big of a hope to hold. Do the Leonin still live?”
“Are they fighting?” Flock added.
“Some live. Some remain sick while others have left as compleated husks.” She stared blankly at an empty space between her two interrogators. “We were told some entered the Great Furnace armed for a small incursion. The survivors do not know why.”
“They thought to invade Urabrask’s domain? That is precisely what we do not need.” Bryce spat.
“We do not know that.” Tarklie responded, half-heartedly reacting to Bryce’s incessant scouring.
“You know very little considering the price you have paid to get it.” A few onlookers were now staring at Bryce’s attempt at scolding the returned commander.
“We were attacked by-” Tarklie was given no time to explain their loss.
“You were attacked and your poor planning cost us dearly.” Bryce swung around and stormed through a small group of on looking soldiers. More people looked over, but quickly returned their attention after realising the commotion was over as quick as it had started.
“We cannot afford losses. I understand the odds are stacked against us, but you do understand his frustration.” Flock ushered a hand towards the path the fleeting commander had just taken.
“We stood no chance. We were torn to pieces. I believe they were waiting for us to make contact with the remaining survivors. They’re trying to keep us cut off from one another.” Tarklie also had a vague impression that both the red Phyrexians and the Leonin had plans of their own.
Commander Flock nodded as he turned his gaze downward.
“I need to speak with Koth.” She added
“He is where he always is. His patience is short and wearing shorter. I hope you have something of worth to tell him.” Flock clapped Tarklie on the shoulder, crossed his arms and slowly wandered away into the crowd of people. His demeanour was clear to most. He had given up hope that Mirrodin could be cleansed, but kept his role in order to maintain some semblance of order in their final time on the plane. He was a much needed calm presence in their current situation, regardless of his stance on survival.
She slowly made her way across to the large dark opening a few feet away. It was an entrance deeper into the ground, one which if you went far enough would lead you back into the red Phyrexian tunnel network. If you didn’t get lost, you might make it into the core of the Great Furnace. Koth had taken a smaller cave down this path for himself, putting him between the remaining survivors and anyone or anything that might come through from the network. He would either be the first to greet a sneaky visitor, or crush an invader to a messy pulp. The Vulshok as a race were formidable in battle, providing a special kind of rage to the field of war.
She stepped through the few meters of darkness, carefully watching her step in the brief blackness. She could see a similar glow emanating from a room not far away. There was no movement. She crept towards the entrance, slowing her breath, hoping to hear if Koth was in the middle of something.
“There are no enemies here. Come.” His gruff voice boomed.
Tarklie slipped her way around the corner, revealing Koth sat at a makeshift table of stone and metal, his own stony fists clasped between one another. He motioned her to approach.
“As I said. No enemies.” He gestured to her shield and mace. “You can’t very well sit with a steel wall on your lap.”
Without responding she unclipped her sash and leaned her mace by the entrance. She undid a number of straps around her elbow and shoulder, and slid off her shield with her makeshift right forearm attached. It left what remained of her upper arm hanging by her side. It was a sight Koth had grown used to, it was after all him who had removed what was missing. When the Machine Orthodoxy had attacked Urabrask’s forces in the Great Furnace, Tarklie had fended off a wave of attackers alongside the planeswalking geomancer and a few of the survivors. A compleated Templar had cut away at her arm, leaving glistening oil to do its work. Knowing the result Koth had immediately charged his way through a field of attackers, taken a sword and hacked off her infected limb in one swift cleave. At the time she had fervently cursed the air with her fury and agony, but it had saved her. She and the rest of the survivors made it to this cave network – half an arm was a small cost for the promise of vengeance.
Koth had fashioned the shield for her himself, crafting the arm as part of it so the shield and the commander were a single impenetrable unit. He had taken her arm away, and so he would bring it back in part to her. He was mildly pleased that she had grown so accustomed to it, but her ability to annihilate Phyrexians meant more to him than her friendship or acceptance. She was an invaluable tool of war, hardened by crippling loss and strengthened when placed into the fray with a weapon in her hand. She was a battle-maiden by nature at this stage, but an even more formidable leader of men. The near impossible feat of taking back Mirrodin seemed a tiny bit more fathomable with commanders like her at the frontlines.
“You lost men?” He asked as she placed herself at the opposite end of the table.
Koth waved his arm in dismissal.
“They will be mourned when Mirrodin belongs to its people. What news from Kemba?” He interjected.
“We didn’t manage to speak directly with her. We spoke to-”
“It doesn’t matter who you spoke to. Give me the critical information. Where do they stand?” Koth was growing agitated.
“Their numbers are small; some have turned to the Orthodoxy. They sent some soldiers into the Great Furnace.” Tarklie tried to keep things short.
“Why?” He asked, almost confused by the prospect.
“They went secretly, the rest weren’t aware. Well… Kemba may be.” Tarklie suggested.
“Highly likely. Her soldiers wouldn’t wander into a hole of their own volition. She clearly has plans which do not coincide with ours. Did you request a channel of communication?” His face grew serious.
“I did, they did not answer. The Myr patrol came… We led them away.” Tarklie faltered a little. They had led the Myr away from the Leonin in hopes the gesture would have some meaning of alliance. Her attempt at doing them a favour had cost seven Mirran their lives.
“Why would they turn to the furnace?” Koth rubbed his fingers against his spiny forehead, ignoring Tarklie’s last statement.
Tarklie thought for a brief moment before offering the obvious.
“I can only think of three possibilities. To hide, to find an underground connection to us, or to-”
“To find Urabrask.” Koth finished, still a questioning look on his dense brow. None of the three options seemed more likely than the other. The Leonin were sometimes overly proud fighters, but not entirely without sense.
“It would be nearly impossible for them to navigate the tunnels to find us.” Tarklie suggested.
“Indeed. Not without help.” He rested his chin on one of his fists and his eyes darted about in thought. They could not merely rest on their laurels and wait to see what the Leonin had planned. Nor could they sit and wait for its eventual success or failure. If they grew too idle, the Machine Orthodoxy would find them.
“We cannot risk losing more men in hopes of reaching the Leonin or Vulshok survivor camps, only for them to wriggle out of an alliance.” He concluded.
“What is the option then?” Tarklie asked. “We cannot stand idly by, we cannot risk the loss of men, and we cannot save the entire plane with a handful of soldiers. The Leonin aren’t much of a help a league underground lost in the darkness.”
“Then we find them.” Koth suggested, as if it were no mean feat.
“That’s… We don’t know the tunnels. Nobody even knows how far they run for. The only reason we made it here was by the guidance of Urabrask’s brood.” Tarklie waved her arms about, as if there were still a hand on her right arm to gesticulate wildly with.
Koth had no doubt she would have a few hand gestures to respond to his plan with. He knew no matter how wild his request, Tarklie felt duty bound to commit to an idea and see it done, not simply because it was a step towards saving Mirrodin, but also because the words came from Koth himself. It was both her most admirable trait, and the one most likely to get her killed. If the Phyrexians didn’t maim or compleate what few limbs she had left, Koth would almost certainly be the one to essentially resign her to a task fit for a walking dead person. She had a tendency to bludgeon her way through impossible tasks – perhaps the reason Koth produced such a titanic shield for her. Tarklie was a highly reliable battering ram with commanding wisdom to boot. Despite his planeswalker status, Koth felt she was almost his equal.
“Try. If we cannot find the Leonin, we’ll find Urabrask. Find one, and we will be lead to the other.”
“We?” Tarklie asked, despite knowing very well what he had meant.
“Commander Bryce would keel over in despair if you were to take any more of the men. Even I’m beginning to wonder if I should have any hopes of outliving you. Besides, the red Phyrexians tolerated our presence, they were not our allies. You’re going to need more than swords down there.” There was an altogether serious tone behind the light-hearted mask of Koth’s response.
Nobody would want to follow them down there, especially after the losses of the recent scouting party. It was a wild plan that needed a certain lack of self-preservation only a hasty geomancer and vengeful commander could provide by the bucket load. Few would want to aid them, but they would not make the request in the first place.
“When do we leave?” Tarklie asked, as she rose up from her seat to collect her arms.
“Now. We do not tell the rest. It would only serve as a fuel for unrest.” Koth said as he stood to collect a few belongings from the table.
“And them suddenly discovering this plane’s last powerful guardian has abandoned them doesn’t classify as fuel for unrest?”
Koth paused. It was a fair point, he thought, but there was no alternative.
“We are left with little choice.” He replied. “Mirrodin’s salvation requires action, and if the Leonin have a plan, we must try to be a part of it.”
Tarklie could see the frustration in Koth’s face. He was not one to fall by the wayside, and even more averse to being dragged along in somebody else’s plan. Still, she felt he was probably right. They needed the Leonin and the Leonin needed them, regardless of how much they liked to believe otherwise. If there was some semblance of a plan to retake the plane by the Leonin, no matter how small, the last living free survivors needed to organise together. The gaping issue at hand however, was the incredibly complex network beneath the Great Furnace. The surviving Mirran in their group barely knew their way around the tunnels – a group of headstrong Leonin had the hope of a snowflake in a firestorm.
“Where are we heading first?” Tarklie asked. The network and the small city itself were enormous; they’d need a starting point.
“We head directly across to the centre of the city, then work our way toward the core from there. Urabrask fled straight down during the assault, I’d hazard the Leonin are aware of the same.” Koth finished packing a few errant items, including a heavily worn booked bound in leather.
Tarklie noticed it was brown with a darker brown diamond symbol in the centre. It had various symbols, a “V” woven in the middle, and red marker hanging out of the bottom. She didn’t take Koth for an academic, but watched as he placed the book carefully inside, almost like it was an heirloom. She briefly considered quizzing him about, but a gut feeling told her it was probably unwise.
Koth had noticed her eyes glance across and fixate on the book, but he slipped it away and threw his satchel over his head, ushering her towards the exit. As they stepped out of his small cavern back into the empty blackness, they both took a cursory glance at the end of the tunnel leading back towards the surface. The quiet murmurings went on in the distance, but they turned the opposite way into the dark below. They stepped further into the darkness, eyes barely adjusting to the pitch black until they could make out the faint glow of camp no more. Koth lifted one of his pillar-like arms and coerced his mana into his hand. Its rocky surface began to glow a dark furnace red and lit their path beyond, quickly disappearing into a seemingly endless path. Koth walked on, but Tarklie turned her head back towards the camp. If any wandering Phyrexians came across the cave entrance and entered, the remaining Mirran refugees would not survive without their powerful Geomancer to protect them. She made a brief silent plea to whatever god might listen to a doomed plane to protect them.
“How certain are you that you can get us to the centre?” Tarklie didn’t like to question Koth’s abilities, he was never short on mana to vaporise a questioning nuisance to ashes where they stood. It was however a valid question given their detriment. Nobody really knew this furnace layer network aside from the ant-like Phyrexian workers that dug them.
“I have a vague understanding. The Phyrexians are not without order.” He said, as he pulled the dense journal out of his pack to chance a gaze at a few pages.
“A group of us travelled to the core once.”
“You and the other planeswalkers when you freed the golem?” Tarklie added.
“It was not enough.” He cut off the subject from conversation swiftly. “Some details of these tunnels are written here – I believe they may offer some small token of guidance.”
Koth continued to walk with his head gazing at the pages of this mysterious journal with his glowing hand outstretched. There was frustration in his voice.
Tarklie had heard stories of Koth’s unending vigour to fight, a sharp temper and a distinct hastiness. He had been quite the brash centrepiece in a number of incidents involving friend and foe alike. What she saw in the Vulshok planeswalker leading her was not the same spirit. He was equally, if not more powerful than before, but far more lethargic. He had paid a high emotional price this late on in the war against the Phyrexians, and its toll had rocked his very foundations. It was as if he had taken the burden of the entire war upon himself, under the assumption the remaining free rebels were out of the fight already. Tarklie had been quick to prove that assumption moot on more than one occasion.