Paying Her Debts
A planeswalker should never go to the Abyss looking for friends. Liliana Vess had learned that the hard way. This time, she came with her own help: sixty tons of maggots and undead flesh.
The Grave Titan crawled through the portal after its mistress. Dozens of decaying arms attached to the giant’s torso, all scrabbling at the obsidian stone of this underworld plane. The decaying colossus pulled itself through. Liliana closed the portal behind it by removing a sacrificial dagger embedded in her arm. Both her wound and the gate sealed with a glow of purple. She licked off the last drop of blood.
The dead giant hulked after her. Its exposed intestines rumbled from the pressure of corpse gas.
“I disagree,” Liliana said. “Business needn’t come before pleasure. Pleasure should always come first, during, and after.”
The planeswalker passed a bottomless pit of human folly. Creatures tumbled into the void from the shimmering rift of a leyline. A Golgari troll, a Narcomoeba, and a Vengevine fell into the nothingness. They were whipped on their way down by demons flying on red membranous wings.
Liliana paused to admire the view. “Nothing says ‘attention to detail’ like unnecessary cruelty.”
In reply, the Grave Titan stared straight ahead. The zombies packed into its ribcage squirmed. Liliana frowned at her brain-dead creations. Then, she locked her face back into a smile that could make an angel forsake her vows.
The woman and her monstrosity climbed down a giant backbone of a dead dragon to a deeper circle of the Abyss. There, they chanced upon two ogres and an imp. Liliana blew a kiss of magic at the ogres, just enough to weaken them so they would not impair her titan.
Lines of power crossed over her skin. Labyrinthine patterns warred with glyphs of demonic possession. The arcane tattoos no longer pained her as much as when she first made her pact. After all, she had since killed two of her demon masters. She could smile over the shrilling of her nerves and content herself that she was better off than those two ogres.
She said, “You act as if you don’t like surprises.”
To Liliana’s mind, there were few surprises greater than having one’s organs ripped out by the undead.
The imp shook off the viscera of his companions, adjusted his jester’s cap, and bellowed a squeak.
“The Mighty Imperio, Eater of Cities will now accept your surrender.”
Liliana asked, “Will he?”
Her Grave Titan coughed out a few zombies. Even these man-sized undead loomed over the imp.
“Seizan and I have a past.” Liliana traced the twilight glyphs in her flesh. Most often, they dimmed after she stopped casting. She took their continued glow as a good sign.
The imp’s knobby knees clacked together like the legs of a nervous beetle. “Leave your guards. Submit to Seizan. I, Imperio, his humble servant, have vanquished you.”
“Seizan and I don’t have a future,” Liliana said. “But I like you, Imperio. Will you see the sights with me?”
Zombies seized the imp by his wings and dragged him after the planeswalker. His squealing voice sounded pitiful in the vastness of the Abyss. “Release me, slave! Or Seizan will make an abacus of your bones.”
Liliana sashayed along the underside of The Bridge from Below. Unreality twisted about the structure. The light of dying souls crackled between the floating boulders.
“No mortar but death,” Liliana said. “Most practical.”
The imp’s pitch ascended with his threats. Liliana ignored them all. She flirted with a demon who had trophy halos dangling from his belt. The imp’s shrilling crested then descended into pleading whines. Liliana gazed on devils pulling off the extra arms of Sakura-Tribe Elders.
“You win,” the imp said at last, “I’ll tell you the secret way into Seizan’s palace.”
“Whatever makes you think I’m going there? The décor screams overwrought demon. And I wish I were being figurative about the ‘screaming.’”
“You killed Griselbrand. You killed Kothophed. We all had betting money on which Prince of the Damned you’d overthrow next. Since you ’walked to the Abyss, it has to be Seizan.”
“Don’t condescend to me, human.”
“—a brother, a father. Now I’m vacationing to the Abyss because it’s the most honest plane in the Multiverse.”
“You do nothing without purpose, Planeswalker.”
Spider webs of power drifted after her hand. She waved to a river of lost souls siphoning into the depths. The spirits flowed in hues of amethyst and aquamarine.
“Beauty without pretense,” Liliana said. “Admit it. You’ve never seen a cathedral window so colorful.”
“I’ve never seen a cathedral window,” the imp said. His dangling slippers were tasseled with rat skulls. “And you must kill Seizan. I told you there’s a secret way. Even if you let me go now, he’ll find out and use my ribs for toothpicks. Please, let me guide you.”
“There’s only one problem. I don’t work with the living. Free will is too undependable.”
“Then let me go. I swear on my mother’s bile I won’t tell Seizan.”
Liliana’s grin made the imp piss vinegar.
The imp followed unwillingly while his undead captors were most willing, in a sense. Liliana led them down a cavern that spiraled like madness. The stream of souls flowed ahead in a wailing aurora.
The planeswalker and company passed through a plain of nothingness. In the wide black, a red dragon flickered in and out of existence. Mountains flowed around the wyrm in a molten spiral, crashing and steaming into a warped swamp and a cyclone of sea. The lands vanished from the plane then blinked back into sight, in the same impossible rhythm as the dragon.
“It’s the Worldgorger Dragon,” the imp said. “Caught in the Void from a necromancy spell gone wrong.”
“Or deliciously right, depending on your point of view.”
“You’re planning to exploit the planar loop?” the imp asked. “You don’t need me for that.”
“I have something more satisfying in mind.” Liliana’s fingernail followed the curve of a tattoo above her breast.
The soul river siphoned through a heart-shaped window in a wall of onyx. A thousand and one stone mosaics depicted every way a person could be betrayed and abandoned. Orphans cried in gutters, their stone mouths locked in timeless torment. Soldiers threw themselves in the path of a fearsome Tarmogoyf, each man sent to die by a callous master.
The planeswalker tore her eyes from the wall of betrayals. If she looked long enough, she feared she would see her likeness.
The wall had a gate. The gate had a gatekeeper, a human torso grafted into the body of a giant mantis. Its six legs fit into as many grooves in the door.
Liliana patted the stitched skin of her titan’s ankle. She said, “Knock.”
The monstrosity punched the gatekeeper flat. Zombies towed open the door, and its curse left them in flickering piles of ash and bone.
“Stop!” the imp said. “The energies of undoing in the Nether Void prevent all but the simplest spells. You don’t want to go in there.”
“One of us doesn’t.” She flicked a finger to her undead. “Bring him.”
The imp defied the proportions of his body to break free of the zombies. He would have escaped, if not for the Grave Titan that swatted him down and hauled him past the gate.
Liliana stood on the brink. Eddies of souls surged upward, screaming in silence, clawing with filament fingers that did no more than disturb her hair. In the distance, the wings of demons thrummed.
“Persecutor,” Liliana called out, “you will trade me a soul.”
A being stormed to her, its eyes bright with rage and its sword as long as night. The demon said, “Which worm would you pull from its doom, Oh She of Beautiful Death?”
“Josu of House Iron Stag.” Liliana’s smile slipped. “My brother.”
A whip of metallic vertebrae snaked out into the maelstrom of souls. The demon’s lash pulled back a greenish blur. The spirit’s features had been worn smooth by time.
The demon asked, “Is this the worm?”
“Josu?” The planeswalker’s voice was small in the Void.
The spirit’s eyes seethed white. A slit of a mouth opened. “Lili?”
Sorrow split Liliana’s chest in a gash of chill. The feeling surprised her. She thought she had cried out the last of her regret decades ago, but the sight of her brother as a broken soul caused her tattoos to flare with anger.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s me, Josu—”
“You slut!” The spirit lunged toward her, held back by the whip. “You poisoned me. You betrayed me.”
“Souls in the Nether Void can never return to life. Josu, you’ll be free to rest in peace. It’s the best I can do.”
“I hate you. You left me here. You left me!”
Liliana turned from the spirit of her brother to face the demon. “It is he,” she said.
The demon’s wings threw aside soul slush. “I’ll trade you this worm for a spirit far greater.”
The planeswalker nodded, pulling the sacrificial dagger from her knee-high boot. “The best I expect from a demon is a bad bargain.”
She thrust the blade into the belly of the imp.
The imp bellowed in a voice far too deep for its tiny throat.
Liliana said, “You would’ve loved to lead me into the winged palace—for an ambush.”
“You zombie-loving louse,” the imp said. “I command you to jump into the Void.”
With his words, glyphs of power flared on her skin. Her flesh rippled, and her limbs jerked her toward the drop.
Liliana breathed through the Chain Veil. The invisible artifact tasted of metal and magic. It filled her with ancient power. Light shone through the planeswalker’s ribs, and the imp’s binding was broken.
“A useful bauble.” She laid a hand back on the dagger’s hilt. Her fingers barely trembled. “Wouldn’t you say, Seizan, Perverter of Truth?”
She twisted the blade. The demon in the imp’s body roared.
“Too clever,” Liliana said. “You wanted to punish me, to dominate me, to outsmart me. I knew you would. And I knew these marks you scarred into me would glow with you near.”
Liliana reversed her grip on the dagger.
The imp growled. “I gave you everything.”
An inky spirit drifted up from the imp.
Liliana waved it away like a bad smell. “Your soul, Persecutor.”
The winged demon seized it. The spinal whip hurled Josu’s soul out of the gates. Her brother screamed, and his hatred once more dimmed.
Liliana strode through his spirit as it shredded into wisps. Her brother left the plane. The Grave Titan slammed the gates behind her. Liliana took as deep a breath as her corset allowed and let it out in what the foolhardy might call a sigh.
She lifted her perfectly-sculpted chin to the lumbering graveyard. “You won’t tell anyone I saved my brother’s soul, will you? They can call me a heartless witch, but I won’t stand for ‘frivolous.’”
The Grave Titan said nothing.
“I do love the strong, silent type. Tell me you’ll never leave me.”
In answer, the giant sloughed off two zombies with the sound of rotted pumpkins dropping on stone.
“I knew I could count on blind obedience,” Liliana said.
The monster and the master left side by side, walking together toward the pulsing crimson light of magma pools.