Project #2 – Act 1: The Last Mirran Pt2

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.

“Yes, they-”

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.

Project #2: Act 1 – The Last Mirran

Project #2 – After our prologue introducing a familiar name to the multiverse, we hit the first section of Act I that introduces our protagonist, Tarklie. Here I’ve tried to fit in as much awesome as possible, showing off our badass female lead. This story will be covered in four+ Acts, so expect this one to evolve over the coming weeks. This chunk is a little longer than the last.

Read the prologue here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/prologue-dark-depths/

***

The situation was dire, but regardless of the cost, Tarklie could not risk retreating towards camp. Their small and almost irrelevant resistance had remained secret and safe in the caverns to the south. If the denizens of New Phyrexia caught wind of even a hint about the whereabouts of a secret survivor camp, the place would be inundated in living metal, bent on their compleation. The few hundred survivors of the insurrection had swarmed to Koth in hopes that he might offer some kind of protection from the unabated spread of glistening oil across the plane. Koth could do nothing, however. After the restoration of the golem Karn, the few powerful people left had either fled off-plane or were captured and consolidated into the Phyrexian host. The planeswalkers had left Koth to his doomed plane once known as Mirrodin, and through some miracle or madness, he had chosen to remain despite the inevitable indoctrination of the entire floating metal world. There was word of other surviving groups, mostly comprised of those immune to infection thanks to Melira, but for the most part the survivors were cut off from one another.

If the Phyrexians scoured the nearby area, they would find the band of remnants, and Koth. They would then all die, Koth included, should his devotion to the plane prove greater than his desire to survive and travel to another plane to find asylum. No, Tarklie and her outfit needed to lead these infected Myr astray as a first priority. If they succeeded and survived, then a double-back would be in order, and they could return with their situation report. They clambered over a small hilly region, with the ever present hum of sickly automatons bearing down on their position. She looked briefly across her shoulder to assess the state of her men. All seven of them remained in relative good health, but their stamina was waning. Deep in her mind, she knew they would not return with the number they set out with, and she made special note of each of the seven faces in the event she or any others made it back alive. Koth and the rest would want to know, they would want to remember. Most of the survivors were soldiers, none of which were related to each other in any way. There were few women in their ranks, but enough had survived, and the remaining few were the hardest and strongest of Mirrodin’s now nearly extinct species. Still, they were all family, and family needed to mourn their losses with respect.

This New Phyrexia was mostly a barren plane now. It had little to no living organic matter, and what was left was infected by the oil. It meant there were few places to hide, and losing a squad of humming Myr all but impossible. They had been fortunate enough to happen upon a hilly bit of terrain, but their situation was almost no better for it. She afforded a look over the brink of their cover, and swiftly ducked back down as quickly as she had shot up. There wasn’t enough time to confirm her estimations, but that were at least a dozen, and they were far closer than she anticipated. There was no time to lose them, no time for a plan, and no hope of outrunning them. Her heart paced double-time and her lungs began pumping. She looked over at her men once more, this time all seven faces looking straight back at her. They knew the look, and they knew the cost that came with it. Before Tarklie could utter a sound, the first soldier, a crusader, leapt to his feet and stampeded down the slope.

The Mirran crusaders were once the pride of the plane’s armies, devout in their duty and almost religious in their form for battle. They adorned the heaviest of armaments, wielded great double-ended blades, and could take more punishing than a sound minded Mirran could imagine. They were the battleships of the army, but their numbers were cut a thousand-fold in the compleation of the plane. This man was likely one of the remaining few, but that fact could not sway him from his duty to annihilate. As he charged on, Tarklie and the others followed in swift pursuit – they shared his duty, and he would not go down alone.

As they spearheaded toward the oncoming swarm, their armour clanged in a righteous unison. None were protected as heavily as the crusader – the weight of his weapon alone would likely encumber any normal soldier or commander to the point of inefficiency. The soldiers wore much thinner lighter plates, spread across the critical points of their body, so as not to hinder their agility in battle. The Mirran almost worshipped metal as a deity, but they were not too blind in their faith of protection to misjudge the importance of dexterity. Tarklie was only slightly more decorated; her position as a commander demanded it. She carried more weight with her, with a grand and impenetrable shield strapped to her right arm, and a dense heavy mace in her left hand that bared a resemblance to a hedron. She was stronger than many of her peers, so she kept pace with her desperate platoon as they covered these remaining few meters before the clash of iron and living metal. None of them could hope to keep pace with the crusader. He would be the first to strike a blow, and the first to receive a dozen.

Even in this hopeless situation, it never ceased to amaze her how strong the crusaders were. He had ram-rolled into the clump of Myr and essentially decimated one in the process. It was a split second before he burst out the other end of the swarm, closer to twenty than the dozen Tarklie had assumed, turned on his heel and smashed through another in a swift cleave. Tarklie and the others beat into the group shortly after and the chaos of the Mirran battle dance ensued. The soldiers were skilled, but the outer shell of the Myr was strong. Swing after swing would bounce or glance off their metal hides, leaving minor chinks on the surface. Tarklie swung into the weaker parts, avoiding the obtuse heads and chest, crushing the smaller limbs in order to maim and hinder their offensive capabilities. A muffled and almost liquid scream rang out behind her; three Myr had clasped onto one of her men, torn away at his plates, and plunged their spiny bladed arms into the man’s chest in a cold, robotic frenzy before swiftly diverting their attention to the next target.

In a fit of desperation two more soldiers leapt to his aid, entirely in vain, overcome by anger at their hopeless situation. They swung wildly at the creatures that had just dismembered the fallen soldier’s body, landing a few fortunate hits to critical points. Numerous other soldiers had fallen, their torn bodies lay entirely lost under the pile of buzzing frenzied automatons. Tarklie kept her composure despite the dire situation, crushing enemies as she viciously pummelled away their advances with her shield-wall. Every few moments she would afford herself a sight to check on the crusader’s situation. He had felled nearly half of the attackers, but had taken numerous direct hits to his now savaged plating. His face and hands were bloody, and masses of Phyrexian oil had lathered itself across his body as he cut away at the enemy. That was the critical strength of the Phyrexian invasion: regardless of whether he survived this onslaught, the oil would infect him. Still, for now he was holding the battle in balance for them. If the crusader fell, they would be all dead in a matter of moments.

Just a few Myr remained, though their party was now all but gone. Every soldier was now dead or dying, clutching titanic tears in their bodies or grasping areas where limbs once existed. Tarklie’s resolve and critical protection her shield had afforded her had kept her alive until this point, and the crusader’s near religious zealotry had driven his strength and supressed his pain. Two smaller creatures barrelled into Tarklie, knocking her to the ground in a clatter of metal. She had lost her grip on her weapon, but her shield had offered some minor defence against the first rain of blows. As if psychically aware of his commander’s situation, the crusader stopped in his motions, allowing an errant attack to strike through his waist. In a blind fit of rage he eased his impaled body off of the arm of the Myr and clambered over to Tarklie, receiving two more slashes to his back and legs. He dropped his blade and seized one of the Myr that was bearing down on Tarklie, raising it above his head as his own blood poured down his legs. Tarklie threw off the other that had clambered on top of her shield, and leapt to her feet. The crusader slammed the Myr down and Tarklie thrust the edge of her shield down onto the neck, crushing straight through the metal linkages.

Just as she turned she was knocked down once more by the remaining two bug-like mechanoids, this time being thrown several feet in the air and across the fallen remnants of man and machine. The first leapt at her again, in a panic she seized a blood-stained Myr arm and carelessly chopped away at the air in front of her, sending the airborne attacker on an uncontrollable trajectory in several pieces. She ran and grabbed the crusader’s hefty blade, barely able to raise it above her shoulders from the sheer weight. It was perfectly balanced, and was slathered in the toxic oil from the fallen creatures the crusader had annihilated. In his final act of servitude the crusader restrained the Myr in his arms, offering Tarklie an open target. She stumbled across, lifted the colossal blade above her head, and thrust it down. She did it with such force, and the weight of the weapon was so great, it cut through the Myr’s strongest parts like paper.

The crusader eased the machine off of him and hung his body upright like a shambling corpse. He raised his arm in request of his weapon – his body was in agony from deep wounds and the infectious oil was seeping into his body. Tarklie placed it in his hands, and watched in honour and appreciation, kneeling down in front of the man as he completed his final duty. He pulled away his broken armour, and pulled the blade into his chest where his heart beated in anguish. In a brief moment she saw a little hope in his face, and then he slumped over to one side, leaving her as the only remaining survivor of the onslaught.

The cost of this small skirmish to the remaining Mirran’s was astronomically high, and Tarklie knew the enemy had lost but a handful of worthless and replaceable peons. They had been forced into a fight that would have left them even more painfully outnumbered than before, and now she had to return to the remnants and break the news. It would hurt them deeply, but none would feel the loss as deeply as Koth. He had tirelessly fought against the tide for so long, and for such little gain. There was never any hope of saving Mirrodin, every inhabitant and visiting planeswalker had known that. Yet Koth stayed despite the planeswalker golem’s refusal to remain and fight. If Karn could not defend the plane, then Koth was but a leaf fighting the storm. Mirrodin could not be saved. Mirrodin had been long lost; it would forever be New Phyrexia. Why Koth had bothered to remain was beyond her comprehension. Perhaps the latest news of her now fallen party would drive him away.

She wandered over, stepping between the human and Myr limbs that were scattered about the place, to pick up her lost weapon. She was far from safe despite this tiny victory, if it could even be considered as such. The caverns were a fair distance away, there was every chance she’d be set upon by another roving group of Myr, or even a patrol from one of the Praetor’s roaming armies. The Phyrexian invasion has been quick and leaked across the land like a virus, but the plane was too large for them to have a presence everywhere so quickly. If luck would have it she could clamber back to camp with her life, now extended by just a few extra days. They could not hide forever, the plane was all but converted, and food was nigh impossible to come by. They would all die here eventually, and Koth would either decide that his fate was to die for his plane, or retreat as the last surviving Mirran. Unless some god-like power came and burned away the Phyrexian infection, they were simply surviving on borrowed time. They hadn’t received reports of the Auriok’s situation in months, and the Leonin led by Kemba were dangerously close to the now deserted Great Furnace of Kuldotha, only protected by a few token enchantments.

She considered loosening off a few pieces of protection – her body was tired and aching, and it wouldn’t save her in the event of another attack. She thought better of it, resigning herself to the idea that she would make it back alive. She wouldn’t allow the sacrifices of her men to be for nothing, and she may need the gear in the coming days. She had lost her sense of urgency, and instead trudged her way towards the caverns at a crawl of a pace. It took a little under an hour to reach them, and her surroundings provided her with little distraction. Large parts of Mirrodin were relatively empty expanses of metal and mineral, a world crafted by the great golem Karn as a giant artifact filled with life and balance. She barely felt the point of turning her head to the horizons on her way, there was little to see, and most of it had been ruined by the warring castes of the Phyrexians. There was talk of a civil war before Karn had been cleansed of the oil, and the invaders had taken to battling one another in a contest for power.

The white Praetor Elesh Norn and her Machine Orthodoxy had come out as the distinctive strong arm of the Phyrexian infection. She had been the central target for the resistance above all of the other Praetors. She was decisive and incredibly dangerous, and had made it more than clear that Koth and his followers were her primary focus in recent months. Those immune to phyresis were of course a concern, but the planeswalker was the most important part of the Phyrexian goal of spreading the host. They could not travel the planes, and relied on the oil travelling on planeswalking hosts. Karn had inadvertently caused the infestation, and was busy preventing the same thing that happened on Mirrodin from becoming the fate of other planes. Koth, who remained on-plane for reasons unknown, was their last hope of spreading their version of perfection.

She reached the rocky metallic outcrop and stopped a few meters away from a huge crack that formed the unlikely entrance. In the distance you could make out the desolate remains of the Kuldotha. Taking a moment to steady herself, she peered around and scoured the land around her. After a full three-sixty examination of the horizon, she cautiously wandered towards the opening. From afar one wouldn’t imagine it was large enough to squeeze your average body through, but looked upon more closely one would realise that the opening was at a severe angle – approach from the side and you might find you could march three soldiers shoulder to shoulder down the throat of the cavern. Tarklie peered in to inspect the condition of the opening, checking for signs of glistening oil in the hopes that nothing had gone awry in her absence. She hoped she might never have the misfortune of finding a trace of it on the walls. Everything looked clear, but she did not immediately enter – there were people on watch at all times, ready to leap to the defence of the refugees inside in the event of a wandering compleated patrol.

“Does the Geomancer remain?” Tarklie shouted, as if addressing the dark air.

“We know not why, but he does.” A brash older voice murmured back.

With the words spoken, two figures emerged from the dark corners of the entrance, expecting to greet a small force.

“I thought seven left with you?” the other younger guard quizzed, an expression of disdain on his face.

“Gone…” Tarklie uttered “A patrol of Myr automatons tracked us down on our return, likely from the orthodoxy. Both companies lie in ruins. Twenty of the machinations litter the ground.” It was a small, thankless victory.

The older guard suddenly tensed.

“Glistening Oil?”

Tarklie shook her head.

“The crusader was the only one, but he was all but done for. He kept to his charge. He died a Mirran’s death.”

He nodded in sorry appreciation, while the younger of the two looked to take the news with a greater sense of fear in his face. Tarklie could hardly blame the young man. He had barely a few years in military service and was already resigned to the fact that his infected home plane would consume the last remnants of survivors in short order.

“I must speak with Koth, he’ll want to know of the losses, and of the information we’ve received.” She entreated both of them.

The older guard nodded, and the two of them escorted Tarklie down the dark path inside the cavern, leaving the natural light of the mouth behind, exchanging it for the magical dancing glow of ignited torches.

The location of this cave was not entirely random. The seeds of Phyrexian civil war were laid when Elesh and her Machine Orthodoxy largely decimated two of her rival Praetor’s hives. No Phyrexians were aware if either Urabrask or Sheoldred had survived, however the few survivors that coexisted with Urabrask’s minions were well aware of his current health. Urabrask had hidden deep in the Great Furnace, his hive feeling the pulls of normal Mirran emotion and rage, and it was this peculiar behaviour which made him seem weak to his fellow hive leaders. He had allowed the surviving Mirran rebels to take refuge within the Great Furnace and its hidden caves, and allowed the Leonin to remain enduring at its brink, something no other Phyrexian or Mirran would have thought possible. Elesh’s force had decimated the red Phyrexians, and had pushed extremely deep into the core of the old underground goblin city. Urabrask and his remnants had fled far deeper into the plane’s crust into miles of endless tunnels. He had ushered the few survivors of the onslaught for days through the network, and left the remaining resistance in this cave that existed on the far outskirts of his domain. It was close to the surface, something neither he nor his brood valued. Leaving the remaining force to their survival, the leftover red Phyrexians delved deep into the plane to lick their wounds.

It was this act of defiance from a Phyrexian which pushed the remainders, including Koth, to one day hope that perhaps Mirrodin could at least be freed from the Machine Orthodoxy’s grip. Sheoldred, the black Phyrexian hell-bent on mass slavery, was not a Praetor the resistance had hope for. If Elesh has truly destroyed her, their chances would be all the better for it. The remaining Praetors Vorinclex and Jin-Gitaxis were never thought about as hopeful rebels. If Elesh fell by the hand of either, Mirrodin would still be doomed. Vorinclex would devour all, and Gitaxis was only interested in his torturous experiments. Urabrask was different, but now vastly weaker than his counterparts. The remaining Mirrans could only pray that he could rebuild a small insurrection force deep within the core of their metal plane, at the very least to cause disruption to the white Praetor-Queen’s plane-wide rule. Since the attack on the Great Furnace, the survivors had not heard a word from Kemba’s people on the surface. Compleation was almost inevitable.

Project #2 – Prologue: Dark Depths

Project #2 – Here’s the first chunk of my second project. This is the prologue in its entirety! The rest of story features a female protagonist called Tarkleigh, whom I’ll introduce in the first act soon.

***

The ice was just moments away from its departure, but the way the ice viewed time was irrelevant. If history was to be believed, a moment could be a day, a week, or ten centuries. The Ice Age had happened so many generations ago, the frosty landscape had been accepted and metered into history for as long as history had existed. Texts spoke of a time long ago; so long ago many living today could barely comprehend that period in time. It was a dangerous time, rife with decay and annihilation, yet fruitful in worship and zealous ire. He had been told, as his predecessor had been told, that this new time would come. Hundreds before him had been taught of this stage in time, reminded to pass down the knowledge that the Dark Depths was once a great body of water. Regardless of its current state, it had always been a dangerous part of the geography – only a fool would brave the waters in anything less than the double layering of animal skin and fur, and more poignantly, atop the breast of a great vessel. Only one had braved these depths and lived, still living, after all this time after time had begun. He was here to welcome the return of their ancient herald, for the time had come, the ice was waning in thickness and strength, and the survivor of centuries past would rise from its troubling slumber.

He had no boat – it would have been all but impossible to travel this distance on anything but foot; there had been no body of water for some hundreds of miles. Instead he had been sent with a party of his fellow cultists, each of them laden with supplies and spares of everything. They had no intention of letting this opportunity pass them by, and they were all made aware that this would be a one-way trip for all but one. Even he may not make it back. They had started as a party of seventeen, each carrying enough food for just a few days, most of which was meant for the chosen member destined to outlive them in the frozen wastes. They carried extra furs, shoes, even water skins; there was nothing to burn to melt ice for the final few hundred miles of their journey. Their sacks were filled with small amounts of fruit to keep their strength for the first few leagues, and then topped off with masses of salted dried meat. It was their duty not to consume beyond their need, but merely carry the one man’s burden until they could sacrifice no more than their life.

They ranged wildly in age and stature – their cult was neither popular nor particularly populated with avid workers in these modern times. A good two thirds of the living members were a scratch above fifty years of age, and the only reason they had anyone younger was down to the sheer luck that a mad woman might happen upon one of their madmen in a drunken bout. The sons and daughters were encouraged and enticed into the religion with grand promises and spectacular prophecies. Unfortunately, most of them had the sense to leave once they reached a respectable age, or adolescent impatience pushed them to distance themselves from the group of doomsayers. Thousands of years ago they had been a well-known and highly infamous group, worshipping an otherworldly force that had wrought destruction upon the land like an apocalyptic event – one many would never come to face for thousands of years. This cult, they were less than a shadow of their former self, old and aching, mocked and shunned at every moment.

The first in the party had died earlier than expected. He was old, and despite being reminded to consume lightly to extend his service, he had taken it upon himself to defy orders. His zealotry had led him to starvation, and it was now up to the rest to prolong their service a few extra days. They had considered sharing his load between them, in order that the sole survivor of their group might reach his goal unabated, but they chose instead to stick to the plan. They would find the strength somehow. The second had passed even more slowly, almost decaying as he walked in the wake of winter. They had all vowed to press on, regardless of each other’s condition. If one fell, there would not be enough time to mourn. Instead they would press on, their sacrifice remembered by the leaders back in the religious court. He had slumped into a pile of skin and bones, but the wind was so cold and the goal was so distant, none of them had turned their heads to check. It wasn’t until a few days later that they had done a head count and discovered the loss of one more. He had lasted as long as they could have hoped, but still they were a few days’ worth of supplies short. On they went. They would find the strength somehow.

Three through to seven had pushed on longer than expected. They each nibbled away at the remaining unspoiled fruit before it all became useless, and it afforded them a few extra days of a painful cold existence. They each knew their fate, and had requested that the group continue on while they sat and accepted their eventual end in solitude. It felt easier that way. While this had increased their timetable by some stretch, it wasn’t long before more disaster struck. Eight had gone mad with hunger and thirst, and beat nine to death with a now frozen salted ham. He had licked the hot blood off of the meat in a delirious rage. The remainder of the party had thought to set upon him, wrestle the meat from him and put him into his snowy grave before he could do more damage to their cause. His age and frailty had got the better of him, and just seconds after attempting to grind his bloody remaining teeth into the now spoiled meat, he suddenly fell into a seizure on the floor. They had all looked on and watched in indifference as he twitched and flailed. His saliva was flowing about his face, now smudging bloody meaty remains into his nose and mouth as he rolled around. They had stared at this for a few minutes before his body gave up the struggle and came to a sudden slump. One of them trudged over, pulled the ham from his cold bloodless hands, and walked on. The madness of one had potentially cost the lives of the remaining few. They would find the strength somehow.

The final eight continued on, with the occasional grumblings as to the fate of the young chap, number seventeen. Their goal had grown tedious, and for the most part they had discounted the idea that he might make it in their current predicament. Several times they had considered splitting the rations between them and chancing their way home. Bizarrely they had all come to the settlement to continue on as the weeks passed, though their resentment had grown as their faith diminished. Number ten had tried to strangle seventeen in his sleep – sixteen had defended him by breaking both the man’s arms. Ten continued on, carrying his burden for a number of days before succumbing to infection and delirium. He opted to take a different direction, and they saw as he walked into a white emptiness, removed his pack, his boots and then unfurling his clothes. His figure disappeared into the emptiness while the rest marched on at a much slower pace than they had begun. They could not find the strength.

The following weeks were hell, but persistent if nothing else. The wastes had swallowed them up one by one, and they assured each other they had passed the supposed halfway point. Fifteen and sixteen were the only ones left accompanying their destined brother, though they did little to build a rapport. Over the weeks the conversation had grown futile, and for the past few days not a single word was shared between them. Both of them watched with bloodshot frozen eyelids as they passed food and water over to their successor, winced as his lips smacked open and closed. He washed every mouthful down with a healthy swig of water as if there were no limit on their supplies. Fifteen had privately suggested to sixteen that he should take over the responsibility of finishing the journey. After all, he had had to bear the most on this journey, and he wasn’t much older than the one the cult leaders had chosen. Sixteen responded in silence, instead allowing the constant hum of the cold wind to emphasise his empty response. That night seventeen had awoken to the sound of snapping bone, but instead of standing to defend himself, squeezed into a foetal position and simply prayed his ex-comrade would leave him be. The footsteps thumped over the solid ice toward him, dropped a heavy sack of supplies, and dropped to the ground in a great wheeze.

“We’re behind on carrying bodies. You must take two sacks with you when I pass. You must find the strength.” Sixteen murmured, before promptly succumbing to exhaustion.

That morning sixteen and seventeen awoke, carrying the load of three men between them. Sixteen hadn’t eaten or drank a drop in days, as per his vow. Seventeen had offered him scraps on several occasions, but the man refused, devout in his promise. It was at this stage that seventeen had begun to consider his role in this seemingly irrelevant quest. Each time they sat for respite, he simply sat in wonder, questioning the purpose of his role. He was set to survive these men for a purpose nobody had ever actually explained. They had reached the enormous body of water – that much was obvious. The thin, icy floor below them moaned and groaned on occasion, and it had taken a dark tone of colour. It was almost as if the miles of ocean below them emanated dark light that penetrated through the few feet of ice that was left. The darkness below scratched at his brain, and on several occasions he felt like he could hear somebody calling him. Sixteen had grown weary, ever conscious of seventeen’s behaviour. This man that was supposed to finish the final journey was now shifting his gaze back and forth as if watching phantoms dance across the ice-wastes. It was no longer sixteen’s concern however. He had not woken up the following morning. Seventeen knew his charge. He must find the strength.

He had prized the fur and food from sixteen’s already frozen corpse, now opting to eat while on the move. He no longer felt the need to check for those whom the voices belonged to, he knew she was leaking into his mind. He knew he was close; the ice grew thinner. As the days passed, his load lightened. Despite this his feet grew ever more destroyed by fatigue. He had once attempted to change his boots, only to find his scabs and skin had healed themselves onto the inner lining. He tossed away the spares, knowing he may not need them. His coat hung over his skeleton, now half the weight he was when they started the journey. Every time one of his limbs brushed against his body, he could hear the knocking of bone like that of large marbles, bouncing off of one another in a defiant fashion. The ground grew darker, and before him he saw a great empty crescent surrounded by dark looming mountains. He had travelled the breadth of the Dark Depths, and he was now near the end. Near her. The Beginning was close now. She was giving him the strength.

He knew he could make it to the crescent within the day, she would tinker and pick at his brain; urge his wasted limbs on to greet her. He wandered particularly slowly that day, not just out of exhaustion, but out of pure fear of death. The ice was barely a foot thick at this stage, and cracks formed as movement beneath it disturbed the gentle balance. Every time he looked beneath the surface, all he saw was darkness. Every so often, just for a split second, it felt as though there was some movement. At one stage he was almost sure he could see a thousand eyes staring back at him, representing one of the many tones of her voice that leaked through his brain. As he drew closer to the end, he could hear a sudden enormous creak ahead of him. The huge plate of ice lifted a few centimetres and then relaxed, almost as if exhaling. He had miraculously arrived at his destination, and had almost run the risk of being too late.

He tossed off his sack of scrap food, untied his water skin and threw it to one side; he would likely never need it after this. He removed his gloves, and then leaned over with an almighty sigh of aching muscles. He dug out a tattered book from the pack and slipped open the cover. As he considered the first page, the ice rose once more, this time many feet, causing the large sheet to fracture into a dozen pieces. Barely keeping his balance, he began to read from the text: his cult’s mission, a greeting to her, begging for her blessing and return to wreak destruction upon Dominaria. As several of the ice plates began to topple in another rise, titanic black lumps like that of a hundred whales eased their way to the surface. She was pulling herself above water, out of the deep sleep that had been the last Ice Age. She had slumbered beneath the Dark Depths for hundreds if not thousands of generations, and now the ice’s time was at its end, she would return to her purpose. More and more of the mountainous creature protruded from the ocean, knocking seventeen to his feet. The more of her titanic presence he saw, the louder he read and shouted, for he thought the more he shouted, the quicker she would rise.

She was the strength.

Marit Lage had awoken.

***

(Dun dun duuuuuuuun)