Robert B.Wintermute

The Quest for Karn

Finest of all the things I have left is the light of the sun,

Next to that the brilliant stars and the face of the moon, Cucumbers in their season, too, and apples and pears.

(trans. Bernard Knox) — Praxilla of Sicyon

Chapter 1

They scuffed over a small rise from the south, with the blinding rays of the Sky Tyrant in their eyes and the heat of the other four suns burning at their backs. Underfoot, the hills themselves creaked and popped as their metal sides expanded in the hot morning sunlight. Venser of Urborg pulled off his helmet and surveyed the rusted horizon before casting a wary eye at the two beings walking ahead of him. One towered over the other and both dragged their feet over the tarnished hill.

“I would have come on my own if you’d only asked,” Venser said.

The large one stopped and turned. In the almost blinding light of the five suns the iron spikes growing from his shoulders looked dull and tired. But not his teeth, as a sly smile spread over his face.

“Would you really have come, artificer?”

“Venser is my name.”

The muscular vulshok shrugged as if to show just what he thought of a name like Venser.

“And yes, I would have come,” Venser said.

“Well, this is my world and my people,” Koth the vulshok grunted, bringing his foot down on the metal floor. “I do not have the luxury of pleasantries.” He looked out over the jagged razor of mountains jutting against the horizon. “We should arrive at my village by nightfall,” he said. “Be ready for meat and drink served by those with fire in their veins. We will find the one who will know what has become of the situation.”

Venser watched the vulshok walk away.

“I can hardly wait,” he said.

As the rest of the day passed, the suns switched places in the sky and a far range of dun-colored, symmetrical mountains grew closer. Their chipped tips of jagged metal thrust at uniform angles, and the round clouds that massed around their serrated tops reflected the rosy brilliance of lava in the valleys below. The vulshok stopped walking.

“Why have we stopped?” Venser asked. “We should keep walking. I haven’t had enough walking.”

The third companion turned away and Venser thought he heard a stifled laugh from under her hood.

“Kuldotha, the great mother of thunder and fire nears,” Koth said.

“What? In there?” Venser said, pointing to the valleys between the lumbering mountains.

The vulshok turned slowly to look at the young artificer. “You have fear in your heart?” Koth said. It was more of a statement than a question, but Venser held Koth’s gaze.

“No,” Venser said. “I was simply saying that canyons are perfect for ambush.”

“And you are a leader now, as well as a prodigy?” Koth said. “Elspeth, what do you think?”

The other figure raised her hands and pulled down her hood.

“I think he is right,” she said, adjusting the greatsword strapped at her hip. “You brought him here against his will. The least you can do is listen to him,” she said.

“Well,” Koth said, flustered. “There is no other way to Kuldotha but through the canyons of the Oxidda Chain.”

Elspeth squinted at the near mountains.

“That is true,” Venser said.

“How would you know truth in the Oxidda Chain?”

“I have been to this plane of yours.” Venser slipped his helmet back on his sweaty head. Through its eye slit he watched as Koth scowled at him. “A clockwork planet,” the artificer said. “Karn brought me here.” He stopped short. The geomancer was watching him intently and when Venser did not continue speaking, Koth’s eyes widened.

“Karn?” Koth said.

“An old friend,” Venser said, looking away.

Koth’s mouth tightened. “I know nobody by that name,” Koth said.

“Do you know every being on Mirrodin?” Venser said, still looking away. He showed an uncharacteristic tightness around his eyes and mouth. Koth’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“We are here to see if the stories I have heard are true,” Koth said. “If they are, we will fight. This is why we brought you here. You will perform.”

A wry smile appeared on Venser’s face. “You do your world no good by threatening those you wish to recruit. You attack me, suffocate me, and expect me to do as you instruct. You are mad if you-”

A squeaking sound was blowing on the wind, and Venser cocked his head to the side taking the sound in. How far, three leagues or just over the next hill? It was hard to judge distance in this steely place … without vegetation sound could echo and travel great distances unobstructed. But Koth appeared not to have heard the sound. He was absolutely red in the face and taking shallow breaths as he stared at Venser.

“Are you well?” Venser said.

“It is you who will follow me and do what I suggest on my plane.”

“I think it may be time to separate the boys from the women,” Elspeth interrupted, her own head cocked, listening to the sound that had caught Venser’s attention.

Venser followed the white-clad woman’s gaze. Far off, over the heat-bent air, a form was clearly visible. As they watched, it lumbered and jerked closer on four sprawled legs. As they watched, the thing suddenly came to an abrupt stop and its legs pulled into the main body. A tube came out of the top and turned until it was pointed at the three of them. No sooner than the tube had pointed at them, the creature hopped to its feet again and began scurrying toward them at an alarming speed. They watched it come.

“Is it a machine?” Elspeth said.

“A biomechanical entity, I would think,” Venser said.

“A biomechanical entity,” Koth said in a mocking tone.

“What do you think it is?” Venser said.

“You are both fools,” Koth said. “It is an artifact creature.”

“A biomechanical entity, as I said.”

The leveler sped over the dun-colored hill toward them. As it came nearer they could gauge its size better: larger than an average human and double as wide, with a dome-shaped turret on its top that spun with large, spiked metal balls affixed on chains. Its old, jagged metal sides squeaked as it glided across the space between them on small legs.

Venser stepped forward and took a deep breath. When he exhaled, the beds of his fingernails glowed a dull blue. Elspeth drew her sword and Koth fell into a squat. The creature shot directly at Venser, who was farther to the side than the others. Venser put out his hand. As fast as it was moving, the machine came to an abrupt and jarring stop at Venser’s touch, and the balls spinning around its turreted top jerked free and spun away to clatter over the metal hill. The machine stood still.

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