Art courtesy Xoaba
Art courtesy Xoaba

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Previously…

Dominarian taverns always felt like home, moreso than just about anywhere else. Save maybe its crypts.

She stepped through the doors, glancing around and stretching out her senses. A Planeswalker never truly lost their connection to home, even if something horrible happened to it. Nissa’s crisis on Zendikar and Chandra’s on Kaladesh were prime examples. Her manor might be located on Innistrad, but she wasn’t about to act like Sorin Markov and just… ignore a problem on the plane of her birth. It would definitely be nice if nothing like that happened here. And if she could avoid the attention of that accursed Raven Man or any of a number of demons, that’d be even better. Hence borrowing one of Jace’s spare cloaks — he had a closet full of the things, surely he wouldn’t mind the loan, even if she’d taken it without permission. It looked better on her, anyway. This one was enchanted to conceal the wearer from passing notice. He’d crafted it after he failed to sneak around Innistrad.

Not that such precautions were necessary in the current setting. This tavern was particularly raucous and chaotic. The infamous Festival of Estark was right around the corner, and many of the commoners were caught up in the excitement and preparing for the event with drink and the occasional friendly (or not-so-friendly) brawl. She kept her hood up as she navigated the loud and somewhat smelly interior of the tavern. It was a modest affair, a waystation and inn about halfway between Kush and Barbar, which partially explained the shouting.

On the floor in each of the tavern’s four corners were circles laid out in brass, laid into the wood and measuring about a two meters in diameter. They were meant to contain the spells of the fighter-mages of Kush’s Houses who tested their skills and fought for cash. Three of the circles were occupied in such contests. One had a mage in brown pitching a group of gibbering goblins against their gray-clad opponent’s swarm of plague-ridden rats. In the opposite corner, a mage in turquoise watched as a squad of spear-wielding pixies probed the floating spirits of a patient-looking mage wearing orange. The last circle was being paced by a short man in a ragged coat, who alternated between calling the action to the raucous onlookers and shilling for bets, and admonishing the young turquoise mage, who was locked in a battle of wills with a purple fighter three times his senior.

Liliana opted against joining any of the circle crowds, and instead made for the bar. Sitting apart from everyone else, nursing a mug of ale, was a tall man in a half-cloak, its edge embroidered with subtle swirls of metal thread. He didn’t radiate power as much as quietly seethe with it, and that alone made him worth her attention. Perhaps he was what had tickled her instincts across the planes.

She perched on the stool beside him, carefully not drawing attention as the barkeep approached.

“Care for a drink, miss?” The man behind the bar was amiable, and his breath didn’t stink too much. A minor miracle, that.

“Wine, if you have any,” she replied. The bartender looked a bit puzzled, then dropped out of sight to begin rummaging through bottles. He eventually produced a dark bottle covered in a fine layer of dust. He dug up a glass after some loud rummaging, and wiped it clean with the corner of his apron. The bottle’s label depicted an armored warrior in Estark’s iconic Arena doing battle what some sort of wyvern or dragon whelp. She picked up the bottle, frowning at the gaucheness of the spectacle in general and this bottle in particular, and poured.

At least it didn’t taste too terrible.

Having paid for her seat, she turned her senses to the man next to her. Following the scent of mana to this location hadn’t been difficult — it was removed enough from the common folk that the House fighter-mages could practice their skills in relative anonymity against members of other Houses. But this man, far from the revelry, was the most likely source of what she’d felt way out in Ravnica.

Along with the inscrutable and unwelcome dread that twisted in her stomach.

Her perception brushed up against her neighbor’s soul the way a teasing dancer would brush silk against a handsome member of their audience. What are you all about, handsome?

His response, metaphorically, was grabbing her wrist and staring into her eyes.

A chill ran down her spine and she broke contact as his head turned her way. A single eye burned under his brow, the other concealed by a dark patch, decorated with subtle swirls of embroidery that matched those of his half cloak. Liliana knew containment enchantments when she saw them. He wasn’t just hiding something. He was holding something back.

“Who are you, and why are you here?” His voice was quiet, crackling with power, tinged with weariness.

She rested her chin on one hand, the glass of wine in the other. “My name is Liliana Vess. And I’m here because I’m like you — powerful and misunderstood.”

His mouth twitched. “I highly doubt we’re anything alike.”

A smile touched at her lips. “Best way to find out is to get to know one another.” She crossed her legs, letting the slit of her skirt spread towards the floor.

It barely got a glance from the man. Liliana had to fight down a disappointed pout. Jace is more fun.

“I’m not in the mood for this sort of thing. Get to the point.”

The pout emerged like a ghoul from the shadows. “You really know how to take the wind out of a girl’s sails.”

His eye closed and he took a deep breath. “Miss Vess, I don’t mean any disrespect. I am simply trying to keep to myself and drink. I wanted to avoid attention. Which is why I came here.”

“Oh, I understand that entirely.” She took a sip of wine. Letting it breathe had helped reduce the bitterness. “I’ve spent a long time avoiding the attention of some truly heinous beings.” She studied his face for a moment. Not unattractive, and the silver shot through his dark hair and featuring especially at his temples made him look distinguished. “You know, when a lady gives you her name, it’s customary to give yours.”

He nodded. “Most would call me Garth.”

“And what do you call yourself?”

“Widowed.”

Pieces snapped into place in Liliana’s head. Her expression did not change.

“What was her name?”

“Rakel.”

“She must have been quite a woman, to get through that tough veneer of yours.”

He said nothing, but drank deeply of his ale.

A cry went up from the circle where the battle of wills had been taking place. Garth turned. The young turquoise mage extended a hand to the weary-looking purple man, who shook it. The caller in the raggedy coat gleefully collected bets from the crowd. A ghost of a smile, an expression of pride, flickered across Garth’s face.

Curiouser and curiouser. What are they to him?

Before she could investigate further, the door of the tavern began to shake in its frame. Repeated, strong blows from outside rattled against it. The fighter-mages dismissed their summoned servants as they turned towards what could be a real threat. When the door splintered, the source was revealed: several figures, elves and humans, all bearing various metals in their skins that looked like infections. Liliana felt the dread in her stomach turn to acidic horror. At least when she took control of servants, they were already dead, mindless and bent to her will since they had none of their own. Jace’s cloak must have carried some of his telepathy, because she could feel the torment of these living things pressed into the service of some insidious, cold agenda, bound to a hive-mind of boundless ambition and callous disregard for life.

Garth shot to his feet. His jaw twitched. Magic surged within him, a feeling undeniable to the planeswalking necromancer.

“Hammen,” he snapped.

Both the man in the ragged coat and the young turquoise mage moved to join him. Garth flung half of his cloak aside, freeing his right arm, and swept his hand in an arc before him. A circle of protection shimmered into being around them as Liliana drew in her power, light from the scars of her contracts burning to life.

At the same time, the other fighter-mages and some of the commoners rushed the intruders.

They never stood a chance.

Screams of the dying and infected rang through the tavern. Liliana seized the dead with her power as they fell, raising them again to protect her and the others on their side of the tavern from the onslaught. Garth summoned knights and spirits, some resembling elves, others treefolk. The invaders that reached them were rebuffed by Garth’s circle, save for a bestial thing that crashed through it undeterred. Before anyone else could act, Garth let out a savage bellow, lashing out with pure power to smash it to the ground, shattering it to pieces. He staggered back, grunting, a hand to his head.

That was something Liliana hadn’t felt in a while. It was an assault that had lacked Jace’s practiced, smug precision or Tamiyo’s patient, whimsical aplomb. It had been raw, unfettered psychic might, to a degree that it harmed the user almost as much as the target. She looked down at the circle that was protecting them from the infected elves; none of the humans had made it past the other fighter-mages.

This was old magic. Powerful spells unseen in the planes in some time.

Who are you?

Liliana turned her attention back to the fight at hand, rending the lifeforce from the infected elves, considering it a mercy to end their miserable servitude. No sooner had the last few crumpled to the ground than the whole wall of the tavern was smashed, the support beams barely keeping the roof intact. Some foolish youngster had conjured fire, and it was spreading. By the flickering, dangerous light, Liliana and Garth could make out the sight of a hulking form that had made its explosive entrance. It was a dark, spindly, horrible thing, and as fighter-mages lashed out with damaging spells, they fell away, power disintegrating from their minds. Unable to coordinate their strikes, the horror kept coming, straight for Liliana and Garth.

More horrors poured in after it. Liliana felt the dread within her growing to a nearly overwhelming level. The pressure of these things’ presence meant there was no time to planeswalk to safety. She raised every single corpse within sight and threw them between the circle and the oncoming horrors.

One of them reached for the man in the ragged coat, who cried out as he tried to raise a circle of his own.

“Damn it.” Garth’s jaw could have been set in stone. His neck muscles strained against his skin. His tension was a palpable thing, a bowstring drawn so taut it might snap in two. “Damn it all.”

He reached up and ripped the patch from his eye. Liliana glanced his way. The eye under the patch was intact, but it was golden with a vertical slit, glowing in the firelight, a start contrast to the dark, natural blue of the other. The skin around the golden eye was covered in scar tissue. A flare of power went out from the very center of the man. A Spark. A bright light in the oncoming darkness.

Garth left hand dove into the satchel hanging at his side, pulling out a golden ring. From it hung seven gems. Liliana’s appraising eye almost instantly recognized each one — Diamond. Emerald. Jet. Opal. Pearl. Ruby. Sapphire. Her breath caught in her throat. Garth made a fist in his right hand, took a moment to concentrate as the circle of protection collapsed, and looked up at the oncoming horrors bearing down upon them. He made a pushing gesture, his fist opening in an instant, and with a flash of light and a sound like an iron gong, a sphere resembling a full solar eclipse blossomed into being near the ceiling of the room. Pulled towards it, the horrors began to vanish, disintegrating into nothingness, along with the infected invaders, Liliana’s zombies, and all of the other summoned servants in the burning tavern. Liliana felt the cold pull of a void between the planes, and staring at the source, fought down a surge of terror.

Merciless Eviction, art by Richard Wright

“Run,” Garth said.

The four of them bolted out of the tavern, which began to crumble into the merciless singularity behind them, consuming flames, wood, corrupted bodies, insidious metal — all things. It even began to pull at those too wounded to move quickly, and the bystanders trying to help them. Garth gestured, and the maw to nowhere snapped shut. He turned to the two other male survivors.

“Master,” the man in the ragged coat breathed. “You…”

“This isn’t the time for half-measures or hiding what I am,” Garth said, returning the gems to his satchel. Liliana watched carefully — his use of such power had left him almost translucent, as if he’d been pulled towards another plane against his will. Only returning the gems and their power to his satchel kept him on Dominaria. Interesting.

Garth continued. “These things may be unknown to me, but it’s clear why they came. They came for me, for my experience, for what I paid for in blood so many years ago. Now, as before, I won’t let them fall into the wrong hands. I will not let Rakel’s sacrifice be in vain.” His paused, visibly holding back a tide of emotion. “I need you to take Hammen, and get as far away from me as you can.”

“But, Father…”

“I won’t hear it,” Garth told the young mage. His expression softened. “You fought bravely, both in the ring and against these creatures, and I’m very proud of you. Your mother would be, too. Now, please. Go with Uncle Hadin.”

“I… yes, Father.”

“Master,” Hadin repeated. “You swore to her. You swore never to use Kuthuman’s powers or treasures again. The cost…”

“I didn’t take back what he stole from Oor-tael to keep it tucked away when we’re under such an attack. Nor did I scour the world for the means of our survival just to die now, in this time.” His otherworldly eye flashed dangerously. “This is my home, and I’m going to defend it.”

“It’s mine as well.” Liliana pulled down the hood of Jace’s cloak. “I was born here. I was made here. And I’m not letting these things turn it into some sort of abomination.”

Garth smirked, his first expression even approaching mirth since Liliana had met him. “A necromancer talking about abominations in such terms?”

Liliana leveled her best withering glare at him. “Let’s not get into a competition of hypocrisy. We’ll be here all night.”

“Come on, Hammen,” Hadin said with a note of resignation in his voice. “Your father’s right. As much as I hate to admit it.” He looked up at the tall planeswalker. “I wish I could go with you.”

Garth laid a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. “I’ve run from threats like this before, old friend. I helped us all run. But we can only run for so long before what we flee catches up with us. This is worse than anything else we’ve seen. And I won’t have it consume you or the rest of us. I need to find out how it was stopped before, and do the same, to the best of my ability. I hope you can understand that.”

Hadin nodded. “I can. We’ll be safe.”

The two turned away and Hadin conjured a portal for them to step through. Garth turned to Liliana.

“I haven’t… walked the planes in quite some time.”

Liliana smiled.

“It’s like falling off the world. You never really forget.” She looked down at the cloak she’d borrowed. Yes, that was the word. “I have some… allies I’d like you to meet. I think they could help.”

Garth nodded. “Let’s not stay away long. I feel like time is going to run out on us very quickly.”

“It always does.”

Mondays are for making or talking about art.

Credits: Magic the Gathering copyright Wizards of the Coast. Liliana Vess art courtesy Xoaba. Merciless Eviction art courtesy Richard Wright.