rennet watched through a farscope as yet another spire, pitted and blackened by horrors born of black oil, collapsed and sank into the Quicksilver Sea. Estimated death toll: three vedalken, eighteen human. Incremental damage to the Knowledge Pool: incalculable. In the language of understatement, which was common to his vedalken kind, the Phyrexians were becoming a problem.
Trennet was an ambitious mage even for his species. Before the Phyrexians appeared, he longed to advance his own line of mystical research. He was promised the rank of certarch. He was promised command of his own spire, complete with an army of apprentices and a ring of lux cannons. He was promised all that was rightfully his, all that he had waited for so patiently since the battle and subsequent truce with the Neurok. Now that the Phyrexians had come, all those promises were forgotten. An unknown system of infectious necrometalloids had eaten giant holes in his plans.
So when the vedalken leader Politus asked for volunteers to free Research Spire Eleven, Trennet volunteered immediately. Politus promised ownership and control of the Spire to whomever was powerful enough to wrest it from the marauding Phyrexians. He had a chance to recover exactly what it was he wanted. He even had a secret weapon up his sleeve, a new method of manipulating quicksilver: something that was sure to surprise the Phyrexians.
What he didn't count on was competition. Human competition.
The only other volunteer was Sarja, a Neurok woman.
Trennet felt willing to put aside his usual distaste for the primitive, hairy race—for the spirit of noble competition—but within seconds of meeting her, his magnanimity disappeared.
"My only competition is a 'dalkie?" she said, grinning at Trennet. "This should be over in a heartbeat. Oh, sorry, in case you didn't know, a 'heart' is a cardiac organ located in the human chest."
Trennet clenched his fists one at a time: one ... two ... three ... four. Why was he letting her get to him like this?
The leader Politus declared the contest begun. As Trennet headed out of Lumengrid, he spied something tucked under Sarja's arm: a reflective, chrome orb made of quicksilver. It was an artifact that held its shape, but also twitched and rippled, almost as if it were sampling the contours of other shapes around it.
This was impossible. The Neurok girl had access to the same weapon he had: the clone shell.
The clone shell was a quantity of quasi-living quicksilver that could simulate almost any living form. It could take on a default humanoid form to move about, and then if its surface became sufficiently warped or punctured, it would transform into any creature model that was imprinted on it. It could take the shape of a massive hellkite, for example, which—he thought ruefully—was likely to be the strategy of his human opponent, Sarja. She would drop the clone shell near the Spire, wait until the Phyrexians mangled its humanoid form, and then the monstrous steel dragon would emerge and wreak havoc on them. Once the duplicated monstrosity had dealt with the Phyrexians, Sarja herself would just saunter up and claim the Spire for herself.
Trennet knew that was probably her plan, because that was exactly his plan.
No matter, he thought. He would follow through with his own clone shell as planned. He had an impressive golem to imprint on it that would be a nasty surprise for the Phyrexians. His clone shell would transform into the huge golem, the golem would effectively deal with the Phyrexians, and then—
Well, then he would probably have a massive steel hellkite to deal with, or whatever else came out of Sarja's clone shell.
But, he thought, there was another function of the clone shell. It could replicate imprinted creatures, but it could also conceal them. Instead of letting his clone shell take the form of a huge siege creature, he could hide another creature inside of it.
For example, say, a master mage—a mage who knew enough mind magic to dominate Sarja's creature once it emerged from its shell and thrashed the Phyrexians.
For example, say, himself.
He would hide within his own clone shell, emerge once Sarja's beast mauled their Phyrexian foes, throw some mystical reins over the will of the beast, and use the human's own servant against her to win control of the Spire.
Trennet enacted his plan immediately.
Existing in the non-space within the clone shell was ... strange, to say the least. He could perceive everything it perceived in its surroundings, but warped and distorted, as if every element of the world around it took a random amount of time to penetrate the shell. His own body was absent, or microscopic—he was conscious of being inside of it mentally, yet he didn't seem to take up any space. He sensed its movements, and he guided its actions, but he was not exactly in control of it. He felt more that he was giving it mental suggestions, and that it was more or less complying. He told it to climb out of the Quicksilver Sea onto a strut of Research Spire Eleven, but it chose exactly where to put its limbs.
For the journey to the Spire was over. He had arrived.
As the clone shell clambered up, he perceived the Phyrexians above. They were a small pack of infected seastriders and thrummingbirds, accompanied by a massive Phyrexianized drake. They tore at the structure of the Spire, spraying it with vile discharges and swooping in to rake the metal with appendages seemingly custom-crafted for demolition. The Spire swayed above the Sea, weakened but still maintaining its structure.
That's when he saw Sarja's clone shell. It too was in anthropomorphic form, but human—its four silvery limbs were worse at climbing than his six. It had made good progress toward the Phyrexians. One of them, an oily-chrome Phyrexianized seastrider, had appeared to notice it, and hopped down onto the same walkway to engage it.
As Trennet's clone shell climbed higher, the Phyrexianized seastrider advanced toward Sarja's shell. The Phyrexian spun and twisted, swiveling its leg with great speed—and it swept the legs out from under Sarja's shell. The shell fell off the platform, plummeting into empty space. Trennet directed his perception to follow it. It managed to catch itself on a lower platform.
Now the Phyrexians caught sight of Trennet's shell; they turned toward him with menace. This could not be—he needed Sarja's beast to emerge first. He had to get Sarja's shell between himself and the Phyrexians.
He ordered his shell to climb down to the girder where Sarja's shell clung. After a moment it registered his suggestion and reversed its direction, moving down toward the other shell.
The Phyrexians pursued. The drake-lord, a massive winged creature with an exposed, black metal endoskeleton, swooped past him and brought its talons to bear. Trennet tried to lurch away from it, but the clone shell reacted slowly, almost getting the full brunt of the attack. His clone shell lost its balance and fell from the crosspiece.
Experiencing the lack of gravity from inside the clone shell almost completely disoriented Trennet. He couldn't discern up or down until he felt the impact, which felt like waking up into sudden motionlessness after a nightmare of falling.
As soon as he had righted himself, he saw that he had fallen down onto the same platform as Sarja's clone shell. With a mental instruction, he caused his clone shell to reach down and drag the other onto the platform. He needed Sarja's shell to join the fight, and fast. The Phyrexians were diving down upon them now. In fact, there was no time to wait for Sarja to spring her trap.
So he helped her out: he made his own shell attack hers.
The four strong vedalken arms of his clone shell made short work of the outer material of the other shell. It tore at the outer surface, warping it, destabilizing its form. In a moment it would rip free of its humanoid form and restabilize as whatever Sarja had imprinted on it.
Sarja's clone shell tore nearly in two. The pieces shuddered, rippled, then began to neatly reform. If it were possible in the surreal unspace inside his own clone-shell, Trennet would have smiled.
But instead of becoming a massive beast, it transmuted itself into exactly the same form as before. It looked like its default form again.
What in the world? Had it malfunctioned? Had he not damaged it sufficiently for it to transform?
No. He had done everything right. It was that Sarja's clone shell had been imprinted with—another clone shell.
The Phyrexians were upon them. An eyeless, sharp-spined horror pounced onto Trennet's clone shell, ripping clean through its midsection with its razor spines. His shell snapped, losing integrity in one shredded instant—
Reality gasped. Trennet felt like he was being turned inside-out. And then he stood on the platform himself, in his own physical body, with no shell to protect him.
He wasted no time, and hurled magic at the Phyrexians. He dispersed one back to a location further up the spire and blasted two more with a gust of screeching wind. Then he dived behind Sarja's reformed clone shell.
A Phyrexian assaulted the remaining clone shell. The creature snapped with massive, syringe-lined jaws, tearing a huge gash in the shell's silvery structure. The shell wobbled, destabilized—and reformed into the same silvery form again.
That clone shell was imprinted with another clone shell?
Trennet did his best to delay the Phyrexians, rebuffing and countering their movements to give Sarja's beast time to come out. Sarja's clone shell fought lamely, throwing slow punches that did nothing to their foes. But nothing more ever emerged. Every time one of the Phyrexian monstrosities destroyed the quicksilver replica, another humanoid clone shell would emerge from it. It was clone shells all the way down.
Trennet evaded for his life. He leashed the invaders with mystical obstructions, redirected their attacks back at themselves, and summoned ætheric servants to help him battle them back. But experienced mage as he was, he was losing. They ripped through his defenses without even slowing down. And that huge Phyrexian drake-lord was coming about again—without the help of Sarja, if that drake got a clean shot at him, it would surely kill him.
Frantically he tore at Sarja's clone shell with his bare hands. He ripped off thin sheets of it, layer after layer—and all he found underneath was more clone shells. He saw his own frustration reflected in the impassive silver of its face.
Finally he turned to face the drake-lord. Rather than die, he used the spell he was saving in reserve—a spell to control the mind of the creature. He focused his will into a psychic point and drove it into the mind of the drake-thing. He penetrated through the strata of its psyche, bringing every resource to bear on the spell—and just as he was about to expire, he finally reached its mind-core, and wrapped his will around it.
It worked. He now commanded the huge Phyrexian beast. With a thought he turned it toward the other Phyrexians, guiding it to attack its own kind. The drake-lord shredded through the other Phyrexian necroids, slashing them apart with its talons and scourging them with the sharp spine-studs of its tail.
With a screech, it finished the last of them. But Trennet had no more power to hold onto its will. The Phyrexian horror broke free of the spell and turned back toward its fleeing master. As it seized upon his body, he fell against the platform, crushed under its weight.
Its talons broke ribs. As it squeezed, he felt his organs start to give way. He couldn't breathe. And in a moment, when its jaws snapped down onto his face, he would die.
That's when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Sarja's clone shell reach toward its own chest with its hands. It ripped a hole in its own chest, dissolving its own form. The silver material dissipated, the last clone shell destroyed.
Standing in its place was his Neurok opponent, Sarja herself. She wielded two things: a large dagger and a seemingly even larger grin.
With a quick motion, she leapt onto the drake's back and sank the dagger into its spine. It shrieked and she twisted, until the drake-thing's head snapped free of its vertebrae, rolling away to one side. The drake collapsed, thankfully falling mostly onto one of its own legs, so Trennet wasn't crushed flat. He lay there, panting, staring up at the sky as the blue sun rose over the Quicksilver Sea.
Sarja's face entered his field of vision—she stood over him. He could see several angles of how pathetic he looked reflected in the shiny multitude of her Neurok lenses.
"Move this ... thing off ... me," Trennet managed to demand.
"Concede the Spire to me, and I will," Sarja said, the edges of her lips curling insufferably upward.
Trennet prepared an intellectually devastating rebuttal—one that would have made her reconsider her entire world-view, and that would have immediately shut her up besides. But his damaged lungs staunchly refused to voice this tirade. He was almost certain that he had an enormous drake's talon punched all the way through his torso, front to back.
"Very ... well," he said instead.
Thanks to some reconstructive magic from Lumengrid shapers, Trennet's body was mostly mended in a matter of days. And the Spire was reconstructed in a matter of weeks. But his ego had a scar that went deep, where no magic could touch it.
Back in his cramped little mage's tower again, Trennet peered at Research Spire Eleven through his farscope. He saw that Sarja had a small army of clone shells patrolling its girders and walkways, and he frowned. He scanned the Seas, looking elsewhere. Maybe he should try to reclaim Research Spire Sixteen, instead.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Continuum":
I really enjoyed this particular flavor article as it addressed a more "bland" flavor of MTG but one of great importance. It was like the mashed potatoes in a Thanksgiving meal. Not the most flavorful piece but necessary and often integral in holding the bits together, rounding everything out. I wanted to add my two cents to your article as I felt it (somewhat appropriately considering the name of the game IS Magic) focused on the greatness of Mages too much in relation to the plain old blacksmith. I would argue (and you would no doubt agree) that the blacksmith's craft is highly artistic, precise and requiring a lifetime of work to become masterful. Achieving these levels would make one ordinary blacksmith today a rock star tomorrow and heralded perhaps by some Mage-Warrior or what not. So like you said with the Olympian: not interested so much in his or her skills as you're busy trying to master your own (magic-less) skills. And hell, that Veteran Armorsmith is definitely a rock star in my soldier deck!
Good points, Jared. The blacksmith—in our universe or Magic's—is certainly a master of his craft, his skills honed through years of steady practice, even if he doesn't sling literal magic like a mage. And mages rely on the arts of the blacksmith; I believe even Gandalf didn't forge his own sword. Mages certainly get a lot of attention in our game, but non-magic-wielding folk can still have huge importance.
Here's another quick one, because I enjoyed it so much, and because it resembled posts that we in the Creative team often link-spam each other with.
Dear Doug Beyer,
I've recently become aware that the Paradise Tree Snake, or Chrysopelea paradisi, has the ability to glide and even turn while in the air.
I immediately thought of Patagia Viper. Was Patagia Viper art imitating life or is this a case where humans thought they were so clever, creating flying snakes, and Mother Nature threw a curveball saying, "They've been real all along, hahahah, enjoy the 'ballistic dive'!"
Ho-lee crap. That's amazing. As far as I know, Patagia Viper was conceived of independently of Chrysopelea paradisi. The art description just asks for a snake that is flying thanks to "undulating fins that run down either side of its body," and as far as I'm aware, artist Chris Moeller developed the look of Patagia Viper out of his own head. But clearly we've got nothing on the imagination of Nature.