“You have nothing to fear, I am the same as I have always been. It is I, your mother.”

But Koth’s unease increased by the second. The tracer lines along his wide chest began to glow red, as did his eyes.

“Where is Father?” Koth said. “Collect him and we must flee.”

“It is not time for that,” she said.

The woman went to the hearth. She snapped her fingers and a lick of flame ignited in the firebox. The smell of food, of roasting meat, was suddenly overpowering. Venser’s stomach turned as he realized he had not eaten in days.

“Perhaps she’s right,” Venser said. “Surely we have time for a snack before we flee.”

Koth set his teeth together and scowled at Venser.

Just then someone screamed outside. The cry echoed off the mountains. It came from far away, Elspeth thought, and was soon cut short, but it was a cry of utter fear and despair.

“That cry will have to do with whatever is pursuing us,” Elspeth said.

But Koth was staring at his mother, who was looking into the fire she’d created in the fireplace.

“There is no need to fear,” she whispered to herself. “No need to fear. No need to fear. No need …”

Elspeth felt a tug on the sleeve of her tunic. She looked and Venser pointed at Koth’s mother’s feet. It was hard to see in the dimness of the room, but there seemed to be a snake on the floor at her feet. The smell of roasting meat was strong in Elspeth’s nostrils, too. She squinted and looked again at the thing on the floor. Venser leaned in close, so close that his helmet touched her ear.

“Tube,” he hissed.

Tube? Elspeth looked again, and now the shape she thought was a snake looked more like a conduit that went from under the woman’s robe and into the dark doorway she had stepped from.

“Koth,” Elspeth said casually.

The vulshok turned to her.

“Let us be off, we will come back for your mother as soon as we’ve found a secure place in the mountains.” It was a desperate move, but worth trying.

Koth’s mother remained unmoving. Her expression had not changed since she came from the doorway.

“Come give your mother a hug,” she said, and lurched toward Koth with stiff knees. “Then we will go eat your father, he is roasting in the other room.”

She opened her mouth wide and something shot out with an audible snap. Then a metal mouth was clamped on Koth’s face. The event only took a fraction of a moment and the vulshok was rolling on the floor pulling at the writhing metal creature attached to his face. A thin tube extended from it and lolled in a wet loop into the mother’s mouth.

Elspeth drew her sword and in a decisive slash severed the tube. Koth’s mother stood still next to the hearth, her eyes staring blankly ahead. A moment later a crease appeared on her forehead and down the middle of her nose and chin, down her throat and farther. Then a click and blood appeared at the seam, and in the shocked silence her skin suddenly peeled back to reveal dark sinew. Jagged bones began to push out, followed by a great maw of serrated teeth and the mandible that held them, and then a whole face of jags and two black eyes unfolded itself from within.

As the creature opened up like a puzzle to stand as high as the ceiling, Elspeth felt the blood in her body drop a degree. The creature unfolded more, sloughing off the body of the vulshok like the peel of an eaten fruit.

It was huge. A grotesque, irregular, twisted skeleton of barbed bone and pitted metal shot through with bands of stretched sinew and muscle. An amber glow emanated from deep in its rib cage and then it opened its alloy mouth to reveal rows of chipped teeth.

The lunge came suddenly. Elspeth manage to sidestep the strike, but the force of it knocked her off her feet. She was up in a second. With numb fingers she hoisted her greatsword. The blow caught the creature between the eyes, but the bright blade glanced off, and Elspeth had to fight to keep it from flying out of her hands. The creature lunged again. Elspeth twisted away. She regained control and whispered the words she knew so well. White fire leaped momentarily from her sword’s tip. Elspeth stepped forward and brought her blade down in an overhead sweep. The moment before impact a white light filled the room and thousands of flashing blades blurred the air. The strikes seemingly came from all angles at the same time. Venser rubbed his eyes and looked again at the creature’s body where it lay hacked as though by one hundred swords.

Venser would have asked Elspeth about her sword right there and then if not for Koth. The vulshok ran to the wet rumple of his mother’s skin and dropped to his knees. His tears smoked as they ran down his cheek. “Mother,” he wailed, holding the skin in his large hands.

But there was no time for grief, and less for tears. A shadow moved in the next room. Venser sensed it first, of course … the creature from the dark doorway, the one who had been controlling Koth’s mother through the wire she dragged with her. But no sooner had he detected its brain movement in the next room than it exploded through the wall. A hulking creature with long, filthy claws and a dark metal head shaped like a gigantic, battle-chipped spear tip. Most of it was grown of black, chipped metal and burned bone, and its jaw extended well past what was typical on any plane Venser had ever traveled to, and only the end of the jaw was toothed and vicious. It brought its head down and charged Elspeth, who swept up with her sword and caught the creature in the jaw, slicing it delicately in half.

The horrific thing reached up and took hold of its bisected jaw and tore the parts loose with a wicked chortle. The black blood ran down its stretched muscles and soon a torrent of fluid was splashing from its gullet. It tossed its jaw pieces aside, turned, and charged Venser. The artificer waited until the creature was almost upon him before disappearing in a sudden blue flash and reappearing on the other side of the room. Meanwhile, the creature continued in its charge, running headlong into the house and driving its head blade halfway into the metal of the structure. Thus trapped, Elspeth ran, screaming at the beast, chopping it until it breathed no more. She kept hacking with tears running down her own cheeks and froth collecting at the corners of her mouth, until Venser’s yelling stayed her hand and she stood blinking in the flickering lights from the magma lamps.

“I think you have done him to death,” Venser said. What was left of the thing was gashed and raw and lying in a clump of black reek on the floor of the house. Venser glanced at Elspeth as she wiped her eyes. A disturbed individual.

“What do you feel?” Venser said toeing what was left of the creature, which was mostly claw and tooth. Worthy of investigation, if he only had the time.

The white warrior was staring at the wall. Venser’s words took some moments to register. Finally she turned to him. A bit of black fluid was spattered on her forehead, but Venser thought it would not be the right time to point that out to her.

“I feel nothing.”

“Do you feel fear?”

“I will admit that I have felt fear in the past,” Elspeth said. “But heroes shed no tears. And I will fight these things with every fiber of my being until I’ve drawn my last.”

“But my lady, I saw you weeping,” Venser said. It was out of his mouth before he knew it. So many times he’d encountered that type of person who claimed not to feel. It made him sick. One could not understand how machines and biotic creatures worked without empathy. Parts of Dominaria were full of those beings who claimed not to feel.

“I feel only hatred,” she said. “They will all pay and I will not rest until this happens. Any who stand before me will feel this wrath.” With that she turned and walked out of the home.

Koth was standing at the far side of the room staring at the dead creature. He made no sound as Elspeth threw the steel mesh curtain aside and strode out. “I hoped it wasn’t true. Not here,” he said.

“So you kidnapped me and brought me here to fight this infection?” Venser said. “Knowing that now I cannot leave, or I risk spreading the contagious oil to any other plane I visit?”

“Are you afraid?” Koth said, standing as tall as possible.

“Am I afraid? I would be a fool indeed to not feel trepidation on a plane that seems to be freshly infested with Phyrexians. Your mother would have killed me if left to her own devices.”

“That was not my mother.”

“She looked real enough for me. Part of her at least.”

“Not my mother,” Koth repeated decisively. The vulshok’s tone of voice warned against further pursuit of the

Вы читаете The Quest for Karn
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