he necropolis at Unx was a city's corpse. The stone of its outer walls crumbled day by dismal day, and zombie drudges patched the holes with the dead. The battlements were formed from the ribs of some enormous dead animal, a species almost forgotten on Grixis, something that had once breathed tongues of fire. The bones of the beast jutted through the wall, bleached-white crenellations, as if it wore the city of Unx as its rotting skin.
On the boneheap opposite the necropolis waited a young human woman. Eliza's skin was pale, her neck blotched with a subtle purple, but it retained the taut suppleness of living youth. She was one of few vital humans left on Grixis, and she was determined to remain that way.
Where others of her kind cowered in remote hermitages, squatting like nests of frightened rats before dying to the roving hordes of the undead, she chose to lead. Life as a necromancer baron was tenuous, to be sure, but only with such power on her side could she hope to thwart the whims of the lich lords and demon princes whose dominion spanned from horizon to horizon. Her armies of skeletons and zombie minions were no match for theirs, but she clung to a razor-thin advantage: she was alive.
Eliza's brain still fed on fresh blood. Her lungs still drew true breath. Her body coursed with the flickering quick that only an intact soul could provide. And as her body still lived, her mind was vigorous, too. She hadn't succumbed to the mindless power-lust of the liches or the desperate starvation of the vampires. She wore a necklace of protection and wielded a sword of fire, but in the final reckoning, they were nothing but knick-knacks. Everything she did, she did to protect her beating heart and her living mind. They were her most precious possessions, and her most powerful weapons.
A kathari scout alighted on a pile of bones nearby, its black feathers tattered and irregular. The vulture-like aven bent its neck to look sideways at Eliza. "I bring news, Baron, haaak," it squawked.
"The guardian has moved on?" asked Eliza.
"For now," said the kathari. "The archdemon took the bait, haaak."
She had given Unx's current ruler, an enormous, black-hearted demon, information that would left him defeat the wards of one of the remote human hermitages. It was a cruel wager, with many lives in the balance—dozens of useless deaths could result, and it didn't help Eliza's position if she had just added one more hermitage to the demon's dominion. But the archdemon and his forces would probably just run into the army of Malfegor, to whom she had given the same information. Living heart, living wits.
"But the necropolis is not defenseless," continued the kathari scout. "There is another threat, haaak."
Eliza knew it before the scout told her. "Another army."
"As you say, haaak. They've massed on the opposite side of Unx."
It was a smart move, taking advantage of Eliza's ruse to move in on the nearly-vacant necropolis. It wasn't fair in the slightest. And it was exactly what she would have done.
"It's him, then," she said. Only one mind could be behind the other army, she figured—a lich king so ancient that some said he traced his ancestry to Vithia itself. "So he's come to steal my claim. What's his stance?"
"Aggressive, haaak, but they haven't attacked yet."
"Then he knows we're here," she said. Eliza took off her necklace of protection and handed it to the kathari's talon. "Take this to him. Tell him I want to meet."
"This is a powerful ward," said the kathari. "Why do you shed it, haaak?" The vulture aven cocked its head at her up and down, blinking rapidly, sizing her up. "Oh, I see," it said, gesturing at the sword at her hip. "You offer a pretty token, so that the lich king will agree to meet you face to face, haaak? So you can put your fire-sword through him?"
"Something like that," said Eliza. "Go. And if I see you steal away with that, I'll kill you from here."
"Yes, Baron." The kathari launched up with the necklace, its sickly wings raining dust and ash as it flapped into the air toward the opposing army.
This news was disconcerting. Eliza looked back across her own undead minions, a confused regiment of fleshdolls, skeletal beasts, and shadowy silhouettes. They would never be able to face the raw power of her foe's minions—but retreat was not an option. She needed Unx. Without a constant supply of mana, she couldn't maintain her control over her army, or feed their ravenous appetites. She needed to constantly expand her holdings across the Dregscape, from sea to greasy sea, to fuel her necromancy and maintain her little barony. As long as she could retain her minions, she was protected. And as long as she was protected, she was alive.
One of her fleshdoll minions lurched to her side, its two mouths growling and drooling red ichor. It rolled its many eyes at her, and she nodded almost tenderly toward it. It was hungry—its body needed replacement flesh, and its bloated insides needed to be filled with souls to continue to move. She needed a plan to take Unx. Enchanted sword or no, she was fairly sure that attacking the Traitor King directly wasn't it. The fleshdoll's eyes swiveled expectantly, and she told it what it wanted to hear.
"Get the others ready," Eliza told it. "Form up for war."
It staggered away, its mouths coughing with something approaching glee.
A procession approached from out of the gray haze that drifted along the Dregscape, revealing the full might of Sedris’s army. There were wagons drawn by enormous dreg reavers. There were swarms of kathari, living and undead, swirling above. There were zombified giants carrying jagged blades made of teeth. Her foe's army made crunching sounds as they halted their progress on the boneheaps before her.
Double-height doors parted on the largest coach, and from the darkness within, a tonguelike tendril of flesh unfolded, extending from the doorway to the ground. The giant-sized figure of the Traitor King appeared from the coach and walked down the fleshy tendril to her.
He stopped before her, but his presence wafted forward like a perfume. He smelled of death and power, the stench of thousands of souls consumed in an aeon-spanning campaign of domination. His bearing wrapped around her like a cloak of knives; she felt small. Her knees wanted to buckle, but she forced them straight.
"Sedris," said Eliza, without quavering.
The lich held up her necklace in one bony claw, and then he spoke. His jawbone moved up and down in a mockery of speech, and his voice echoed weirdly, like a living voice that had reverberated down a long tunnel.
"Eliza, my dear," said Sedris. "I got your gift. But you're looking weary, child. I trust you're ready to join forces, to storm this necropolis together?"
"No," said Eliza. "My armies will stay separate, thank you. But we need to negotiate this assault."
"I don't believe you understand, my dear." If Sedris was ever human, there was no scrap of it polluting him. His massive horns reached out toward her as his dead voice echoed. "I'm telling you that your leadership is over. Give your minions the command to serve me. This I order you."
"You can't order me, Sedris. You have no thrall over the living."
The lich took a moment to make an imperious gesture to one of the zombie guards behind him. They advanced on her. Eliza stood back, and put a hand on her sword.
"Come now, there's no need for violence," grinned the lich king.
Eliza scoffed. "Did you think I wouldn't know how this would end? Did you think I hadn't heard the stories of you, traitor?"
"That's enough, child. Come here. I only hope your blood will assuage the pain your words have caused me."
With that, Eliza drew her sword. As it slid from the sheath, it burst into flame—and not the lifeless flicker behind the lich's eyes, but a true fire, made of fury and wildness.
Sedris's grin revealed all his pointed teeth. His voice was the breeze of a glacial cave. "Now we see your true spirit. I am so pleased to see it—it's exactly what I had hoped. Come, then." He dropped his massive war-club, crushing a nearby skeleton minion. "I am unarmed. Do your worst."
Eliza knew that even with its hearty flame, the sword would only scratch the ancient lich—and an attack would only draw her close enough for him to overwhelm her, smother her, and consume her soul. Instead she drew her arm back and, with all her might, flung the sword into the distance toward the necropolis.
Sedris's laugh ricocheted up through his body and out through his nose-hole, his teeth clamped tight. "Your negotiation tactics leave much to be desired," he said somehow, his jaw not budging.
The sword whipped end over end through the air, and hit point-first in the wall of the necropolis, sinking into the crumbling stone between two huge rib-bone crenellations. The hilt of the sword burned with vigor.
Eliza summoned up the last of her mana and uttered her most powerful necromancy spell.
The flame spread out from the sword like a wildfire, promptly ringing the necropolis with red light. A heartbeat later, the stone of the necropolis wall burst, falling away like ash. What it left behind was a mile-long skeleton, its bones suddenly unsullied by masonry. The flame alit on the bones then, spreading across them, filling the spaces between them, conjuring the shape of a being that had once stood with their strength.
"Here is my negotiation, Sedris," said Eliza, her voice strained. She held her arms above her head, locked at the elbows as if she were lifting a heavy load. "Leave Unx now, and I won't burn it, or your armies, to a cinder."
Sedris's grin turned to a scowl as he watched the skeleton-wall flood with flame. The flaming silhouette of a reptilian body formed around the huge skeleton, and the creature began to move.
"You wouldn't do this," said Sedris. "You need Unx as much as.... Don't do this."
"I'd rather see us both perish today, here, than see you take what's mine," said Eliza. Her eye sockets seemed deeper than a moment before, hollow with shadow.
The skeletal fire-dragon unwrapped itself from around the necropolis, and stood with full fury. It spread bony wings that blazed with the magic of the fire-sword. Its eye sockets trained on Sedris, pinning him with the same glare as the young necromancer.
"I'll destroy you all!" Sedris shouted in rage.
A shadowy ghost minion of Sedris's slipped up next to his head and whispered something to him. He glanced at it. It nodded, and slipped away again. He turned to Eliza.
Eliza maintained the necromancy spell as best she could. Her arms had begun to shake.
"I'll go," said Sedris. "I'm told that there's no endgame for me here, not with your little fiery friend. But it's no matter. You'll waste your resources taking Unx, and fighting off the archdemon when it returns, and then you'll be ripe for the picking."
"I look forward to our next meeting then," said Eliza. "Or perhaps I'll see you in Sedraxis."
Sedris sneered, and his nose-hole emitted an inhuman noise. But he turned.
The skeletal fire-dragon roared, sending a gout of flame into the sickly Grixis air. It continued roaring intermittently as Sedris's troops moved off into the distant haze.
Eliza dropped the spell. The charred bones of the dragon tumbled back to the ground around Unx. She fell to the ground as well, heaving with exhaustion.
The kathari scout returned, alighting on one of the boneheaps as before. "You did it, haaak," it said.
"So it seems," breathed Eliza. "Do me a favor, scout?"
"Take this necklace." She produced another protection necklace, identical to the one Sedris now possessed. "It will help you follow its twin. Find the way Sedris uses to get into his lair, and report back to me."
"Back at the Keep, at Ilsun Gate, haaak?"
"No. Here," said Eliza. "I'm the baron of Unx now. Troops, form up for battle."
Her heart was pounding from tension and the exertion of her spell, but at least it was still beating.
Letter of the Week
Happy Grixis Week, by the way, and happy soon-to-be-Halloween.
Today's letter comes from Kevin, who's writing about Bant's angels of a different color.
Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "An Angels Eye View of Bant":
Shards of Alara is a very cool concept, and I particularly like Bant. Probably because it has my favorite creatures: Angels. However, I'm having trouble accepting "G" in the casting cost of White's most iconic creature.
I can understand having the other colors in the casting cost of Angels and what they might represent:
Red - Rushing to recklessly attack their foes or moving with supernatural speed.
Blue - Controlling their followers or carefully planning and analyzing battles.
Black - Fallen Angels, Angels of Death, Corrupted Angels, etc.
Green - ??
How does Green's flavor of plants, animals, instinct, growth, predator-prey, etc., fit in with Angels? My inner Vorthos is scratching his head at how any Angel could possibly connect with "Mother Nature" enough to warrant having "G" in their casting cost.
It almost seems like the "G" was shoehorned in because "there's Green mana in Bant so the big creatures designed to represent it must include 'G' in their casting cost." I know this can't be the case though, as the people involved in creating Shards of Alara are far too talented for that. Can you shed some light on this for me?
Green is indeed the color of instinct, growth, and predation. It's a mean and nasty color when it wants to be. But remember that it can be quite a benevolent color too. Like a mama bear, a lot of green's stompin' happens when its babies are threatened—when some part of nature comes under fire—which is pretty compatible with the mission of Bant's guardian angels.
Plus, Bant's tri-color angels are just different from mono-white angels. They don't line up with your expectations of other planes' angels because they aren't like other planes' angels. Just as one of Serra's angels is a manifestation of pure white mana, Bant's angels are manifestations of Bant's peculiar three-color braid of mana. They have a bit more of an appreciation for Bant's flowing meadows and cultivated gardens, more benevolence toward the animalistic aven and rhoxes, and a more welcoming view toward farmers, druids, hierarchs, and other cultivators of nature. A plane's mana affects its denizens and its culture, especially when it comes to creatures like angels, who epitomize compassion toward and the security of the world they protect.