“Well, let’s take a look,” Venser said.

He rapped twice on the side of the creature and the rivets holding one of its panels in place popped free. Venser whispered a word under his breath and the panel snapped to his palm as though magnetized. He placed the panel carefully at his feet. Then, to Elspeth’s surprise, he pushed his head into the hole and began taking deep breaths.

Koth glanced at Elspeth. Venser suddenly jerked his head out of the hole.

“Fascinating and good.”

“What is fascinating?” Koth said.

“This creature, of course. It has never had any synaptic taint …,” Venser said.

Elspeth slipped her blade back in its sheath.

“That is good news,” Koth said.

Venser waited. “That means no taint of, uh, infection.”

“Superior,” Elspeth said. “One machine we don’t have to send to the scrap heap.”

She sounded confident and angry, Venser thought, but there was something else in her tone-some slight tremble in the upper ranges that did not sound confident in the slightest.

Koth knocked carefully on the artifact’s thick side.

“What do we do with this?”

“We will leave it and my spell will eventually wear off and this marvel will continue on its way.”

“Why not dismantle it now so we do not have to fight it later?” Koth said.

“Because it has done nothing to us,” Venser said.

“Except try to destroy us.”

“Let us keep walking,” Elspeth said, ignoring them both. “This heat tires me greatly.”

They kept walking. Soon the mountains they’d seen in the distance were upon them. Their dull iron sides shot up at right angles never seen in nature … at least never seen in any kind of nature that Venser had spent time in.

“The Oxidda Chain,” Koth said reverently.

The Chain seemed to be composed of corroded, notched slab iron run through with winding conduit tubing. Dark caves and holes abounded in the tight valleys between the peaks. Unaccountably, walkways of metal welded to the sides of the mountains wound away through the valleys. Venser smelled oxidation in the air and something else … rotting meat maybe. Nothing moved. No tree limbs stirred in the hot breeze. There were no birds. No sand blew around the cornice of a hill. The view appeared as still and remote as a painted picture.

They pieced their way through the jagged debris that had corroded and rolled off the higher peaks and came to rest deep in the valley. Eventually they reached the base of one of the raised walkways and clambered up its side. The walkway’s metal gangplanks were buffed to a dull sheen, but many were oxidized through and derelict.

“Enough of this,” Koth said. He put his two sizable hands before him and made a seizing motion, as if to grab one of the huge iron boulders lying in the bed of the valley. To Venser’s momentary shock, three of the chunks rose off the ground and floated toward them, guided by Koth’s glowing hands. The chunks stopped, one in front of each of the Planeswalkers. Koth stepped on his, and soon Elspeth and Venser were on theirs. Koth’s boulder began to float out over the valley floor, a bit higher than the stature of a man. Venser was next. When it was Elspeth’s turn, she shot her arms out to her sides to steady herself as her chunk glided forward.

The heat seemed to increase as they moved deeper and between the riven spires of the Oxidda Chain. There was no noise save the wind skittering the loose metal flakes along the valley floor.

Koth had to maintain a lifting motion as the slabs flew. For a moment Venser considered teasing the geomancer for the pose, but then thought better of it and looked out over the raw landscape. He thought about how it had appeared when he visited all that time ago. The same. Just as harsh and, to his eyes, unforgiving. He remembered Karn’s pride in Mirrodin. He would go into great detail explaining how many days it had taken him to create a certain ridge, or sculpt a peak with just the right sheer. As Venser looked around at the tortured aspect of the Oxidda Chain’s brown and orange mountains, he wondered … where the creator of Mirrodin was. Where was Karn?

“Where are the living things?” Elspeth said.

“I too would have expected to have encountered a border patrol by this point,” Koth said.

“Perhaps the situation on this plane is not as dire as we had thought?” Elspeth said.

“Do any of these suns ever set?” Venser said, gazing upward at a low red sun. “I mean, one falls and another rises, and so on and so on.”

Koth glanced up at the sky. “They pull into alignment, and then fall. This will happen soon and quickly-and by that time we should be in the safety of my village.”

“Why?” Venser said.

“It is not safe to wander through the Chain at night. The dangers of falling into something sharp or striking metal is enough.”

“But there are creatures, as well?”

“Oh yes, there are many creatures.”

Venser let the comment hang in the air before turning to Elspeth.

“What is Bant like, fair knight?” Venser said to Elspeth, with only the barest lilt of jest in his voice.

The corner of Elspeth’s mouth turned down.

“It was beautiful,” she said.

“But there is sadness, now. Is there not?” Venser said.

Elspeth was looking down the canyon. She did not shift her gaze at Venser’s words.

“There used to be only honor, bravery, and perfection,” Elspeth said. “In my dreams it is still as it was, and people serve for the greater good.”

Koth let out a gruff laugh. “Service?” he said. “I have never heard something so …” he stopped and turned to Elspeth, who was staring at him intently. “I have never heard of anything so … foolish. The strong lead. The weak follow or die.”

“Foolish?” Venser said. “Strength comes in all forms. Sometimes working together is the only way to achieve an end. You may be required to cooperate to save your precious Mirrodin, by the end.”

Koth growled at Venser before gliding away on his rock.

The suns lined up in the sky as Koth said they would. They fell in a line toward the craggy horizon. Their light was almost extinguished by the time the village came into view. Sunset found them floating above a high precipice looking down on the quiet village.

“It is too still,” Koth muttered. How could a village that had been bustling when he left Mirrodin be completely still now? Where are the fires?

The suns sank still farther in the sky. It would be dark soon. Almost all the light had drained from the sky, and their view would be in question.

Except for the wind, the silence that lay on them as they floated through the village was unbroken and total. They glided along the road that passed between a rough huddle of huts made of rolled-up lengths of metal hammered into tubes. Some of the tubes were wide and some were narrow enough to fit only a body. Elspeth noticed some structures composed of rolls piled together into triangles. There were metal mesh curtains that acted as doors, but most curtains were thrown back to reveal the darkness within the tubes. Many of the curtains whipped and snapped in the wind.

They stopped above the well that marked the center of the village. An iron bucket that acted as the village dipper creaked on a chain in the wind.

“This is a warm reception,” Venser said. “Are vulshok homecomings always so lively? If so, I have to make a point of attending more of them. They remind me of home on Dominaria.”

But nobody laughed. Even Elspeth did not chuckle. The white warrior had droplets of sweat on her top lip, Venser noticed. Her right hand, resting in what she undoubtedly hoped was a casual pose on her sword hilt, was clenched in a fist.

Koth closed his eyes. Lines began to glow red along his ribs until his whole body was as an ember might be. His eyes popped open suddenly, as red as the tracer lines on his body.

“Be ready,” he said.

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