Glory to the Father of Machines! We await a portent from our inchoate master. Only he can tell us when the time is right to reveal ourselves and claim the surface of the world. How perfect he seems to me! He is as perfection should be: free of flesh. Flesh: weak, pliable, a shawl of filth that the lessers hug to themselves for a dream of safety. Disgusting.
And yet even as we wait for our day of triumph, we are beholden to the porter who thinks himself a steel thane: Geth. A joke of a being. His undead human head simply happened to be at our chosen doorway, and so he was blessed with a purpose and a body of phyretic metal and sinew. He fancies himself a gatekeeper, permitting the passage of the praetors themselves. To think that a human head would presume to control Phyrexia itself. Heresy!
No matter. The Whispering One will allow Geth's ambition only for as long as it suits her. Once our plague dogs roam the surface, he will be chattel, as will the Nim he commands. For now I will bide my time. The Whispering One has the ear of the Father; I dare not move against her. And the Vault-Keeper is too stupid to understand that his time as a thane is about to end. So I will ally with the other five thanes, dim and vain though they are.
The war against the pollution of flesh continues. I have ordered my flensers to patrol the fringe and to process any tissue in their path. Their handiwork lies in ever taller heaps, monuments to my mission and a message to those who would trespass in my domain. Great clouds of pistus flies gather at the flesh mounds to feed. This, too, is by design. Let Phyrexia see the corruption of their own flesh that they may understand its weakness. They will learn that it has no place in our grand Machine!
But others must not know these thoughts. Not yet. When the day comes for our eminence, vast kingdoms of flesh will fall. I will build my strength upon their weakness. I will free them from their shackles of skin and sinew. In my beneficence I will help them become their compleat selves. I will strip them to bone and I will cast their bones in steel and I will build cathedrals from their steel bones. Glory to Phyrexia!
I must seek out The Many-Legged One in its barren realm. It is already dimly aware of how we may benefit each other. I need only to lead it to the conclusion that I am a potential instrument of its mission. Caution is required. It is not one to appreciate dogma or dialogue. It is all too eager to act.
All will be metal. All will be perfect.
Kraynox. A strangely insular being, especially for one who has risen to become a thane. He is a creature obsessed. At times he seems to do nothing but arrange for oil to be ferried from place to place in great gobs and tiny rivulets, keeping his ever growing lattice-realm slick and dark. But from time to time, his countless servitors will scatter and he will unveil a vast, new stretch of his "fourth layer."
He is gloriously devoid of flesh but somehow not perfect. I don't know whether he lies or is deluded, but Kraynox claims to "dream" as the incompleat surface creatures do. He dreams of a future Phyrexia that he says is also past somehow. In this Phyrexia, there is not simply a world with an inside and outside, but with many spheres within spheres, each with a purpose. And Kraynox believes it is his purpose to build one of those spheres. He would add his "fourth layer" to the three that exist: the surface, the interior, and the furnaces. It is not for me to decide whether this is heretical.
The Whispering One seems unconcerned with Kraynox's burgeoning domain. Perhaps she thinks he will overstretch his reach and that his efforts will in the end benefit her. Or perhaps she knows something. For my part I care little; I give Kraynox respect because he embodies the fleshless ideal. For his part, Kraynox seems to endure my presence and to grace me with occasional . . . speech. Much of it is nonsense to me, but I trust that some of it has meaning. It must.
My journey to his oiled web told me much about the state of our Grand Destiny. The Gitaxians conducted their "research" with more haste than usual. The beings of the Orthodoxy didn't even question the purpose of my travel; they seemed too busy consulting each other. All points along the journey showed signs of skittering and skirmishing. They grow impatient. Good.
When I presented myself to Kraynox—he was not difficult to find this time—he even greeted me as "Rot-Thane." An apt title. I will adopt it. Then he told me once again of his dreams, and I tolerated the soliloquy as I watched his oil holdings drip upward and downward across the supports of his vast lattice. Mesmerizing, and not a trace of abhorrent flesh in sight.
After his monologue spent itself, I made my proposal. When I finally uttered the phrase "fifth layer," his form shuddered, and he began to fastidiously gather bits of oil and pour them over himself. I chose to take this as an indication that he was pleased, so I told him of my vision: A new sphere within our domain, with a floor of flayed flesh—a material fit only to walk on. Kraynox was unaware of my great stores of it and at first seemed skeptical that I could possibly span our world's circumference. Anticipating this doubt, I produced the stretched hide of a grotesque meat-creature my servants had brought me. It blanketed us both.
For the small, somewhat demeaning price of beginning work on the flesh floor beneath his own oiled metal network, I believe Kraynox and I have an alliance. For the time being, this is quite adequate.
I have incurred the second cost of many on my path to primacy.
To maintain my alliance with Kraynox, I must make sufficient progress on the fifth layer during each cycle. To make progress, I must harvest unprecedented stores of flesh. To harvest more flesh, I must send my ripper scarabs and flensers into new domains. And so I did. But that meant first ingratiating myself to Geth, that mockery of compleation that keeps the gate. And so I did.
After granting me audience, the wretch called me into his "throne room" while scraps of pathetic, tissue-based unlife skittered about. I stood in a sunken area with several of my larger flensers flanking me. He leaned back on a rather pleasing spiked chair as though waiting to be impressed. I told him flatly of my need for flesh and added that the flesh from his filthy head would not yet be required. He erupted into some kind of human barking sound while baring his teeth. When I tried to emulate the noise he abruptly stopped. I did not ask why.
Geth asked me what I knew of the Mephidross and the Glimmervoid beyond. I saw no need to dissemble, so I told him I had heard of the necrogen chimneys, of the nim, and of the larger things waiting there to be commanded by those with power. I told him that I assumed fleshy, disgusting things with delusions of grandeur come into the Mephidross and become slightly less disgusting in time.
He regarded me silently for a time. Then he said, "I know where your scarabs can find enough hide to keep Kraynox satisfied for many turns of the suns." I had told him nothing about my alliance with the Deep Thane. I suppressed my surprise but responded . . . irritably. "It would seem as though the answer scampers all around this chamber," I said.
Geth's little creatures all stopped moving at once. My flensers flicked their blades in and out, primed by the creatures' fear response. Then one of them speared a nearby wormling of some kind and spun it rapidly between its appendages, flaying it. Geth watched calmly. "If you wish," he said. "But harvesting here would yield little. Your purpose would be better served by seeking out Thrissik, at the Dross's darkest edge." He paused, widening his mouth. "I suspect Thrissik will permit you to pick through its leavings."
I had underestimated Geth. He resists impulsive human reactions, he serves Phyrexia, and he knows of the fifth layer. But how? Who is informing him of our work below? What else does he know?
"I will need direction to reach Thrissik, Thane Geth. I will send my —" Geth interrupted me. "No," he said, "you must go personally. Thrissik will not grant your minions passage. It will want to examine you for itself before permitting the presence of your creatures in its domain." This was an unexpected nuisance, but I could use it as an excuse to see for myself the infested surface of our world. "I will go, then," I replied, and instead of the snide comment I expected, he said only, "Glory to the Father of Machines." A misshapen thing moved from behind him to lead my way out.
Idiot. How could I not have seen it? I have lost too much time recovering from this incident. I must find a way to speed my recovery. I must resume work on the fifth layer before Kraynox turns on me as well.
No time to dwell my own blind foolishness. The night-learners could still be watching.
- - -
Ten cycles have passed since my journey to Thrissik's realm. Most of the damage to my form has been mended. But the damage to my project remains.
When we left Geth's Vault, I bade a flenser return to the interior and order my swarm to come forth. Thereafter the remaining flenser and I followed Geth's creature through the thick necrogen ground-fog, through a winding path of corroded chimneys. At first I found it glorious—such ancient evidence of the oil's work, such a perfect landscape of poison and decay. But after a time it became tedious, repetitive. I began to feel as though I were sleepwalking.
With a sudden shudder, a long, slick thing heaved itself from the spongy ground and lunged toward us. My flenser buried its blades into the predator and was whipped away by the force of its movement. A kind of hook emerged from the predator's back and scooped up the flenser, taking it into a vile sac. When I looked back, Geth's creature was gone. I fled like a mewling newt, alone.
I remembered Geth describing an edge, so with no other choice I continued my path, moving directly away from the Vault far behind me. In the distance something glinted. That's when I first spotted them behind me: the night-learners.
I did not expect Sheoldred to set her hunter-watchers on me, a thane. When Geth revealed his knowledge of my alliance with Kraynox, I should have known the Whispering One would know of it, too. But I could do nothing. I turned and faced one of them in the distance. It moved out of sight. Then I heard fast-approaching clicking and whirring: my swarm at last. I do not know why the night-learners spared me. I suspect I will find out soon enough.
With my swarm to envelop me I moved more quickly. The flesh Geth had promised began to show itself—dead creatures littered the ground, mostly human. I held back the swarm although they were eager to strip the carcasses. I thought it wise to seek Thrissik's blessing first.
I was incorrect.
I knew nothing of Thane Thrissik other than its obsession with a Phyrexian cycle of some kind. When I finally came upon its coiled mass of cables and intricate series of spined legs, I . . . hesitated. On seeing me it uncoiled itself, rising above me.
"Are you the Destroyer?" it asked. I did not answer. "Let us find out together." It attacked, plunging downward toward me. I dove out of its way. Its legs twitched and searched. I commanded my swarm to attack it, and the ripper scarabs climbed its body, making their way to its fleshy thorax. It seemed unfazed. It moved, sidewinding, across the surface methodically. I was found.
Thrissik tossed me about like a corpse, as though looking for something. I was damaged. It then pinned me to the ground. I felt a claw scratch something onto my back. "You are not the Destroyer," it said. Then it simply left, with my scarabs still chewing on its thorax.
Dazed, I commanded my swarm to return and begin the harvest. What else could I have done?
"You will be first to fall," he said.
I had traveled too far through the slag and rust just to hear the Demon Thane mock me. With a small escort I had traveled out of the Mephidross, away from my flensers toiling in Thrissik's wastes. I trekked across the surface world to what the flesh beings call Oxidda. I knew to look for the Wailing Cairns and after a time I found them—spires of skulls and bones dripping with quicksilver, each emitting groans, shrieks, whispers, laughter. I am told these sounds are disturbing to the incompleat.
The molten metal in this place possesses great beauty. It is like blood that needs no flesh to flow. But the interminable climbing and the noise from the Cairns became tiring, then irritating. After dozens of zig-zag ascents I came to a schism in the rust and entered, descending into blistering heat.
I had no desire to bargain with a skin-wrapped fearmonger like Azax-Azog, but I had little choice. Kraynox seemed an ally, but Geth and Thrissik were apathetic at best, and more likely treacherous enemies. Sheoldred suspects something. I dare not provoke her lest she send me one of her night-coffers—relics that grant either an audience with her or oblivion.
"Hear me, Rot-Thane," he boomed comically. "These six words are your truth: You will be first to fall."
Does this bombast work on the flesh mortals? I feigned extreme fear to make Azax-Azog believe that he was in control, that I was servile. I shook as though convulsing. "H-How can I avoid this fate, Thane? I beseech you utterly."
"You cannot. You can only spend your wretched days in toil, unwittingly serving those greater than you. You should return to the Mephidross, to your little flesh-quarry."
I had no choice but to press. "Azax-Azog, surely we can benefit each other. I could provide to aid in the expansion of your realm. You could repay me by revealing what you know."
"I would accept nothing from you, worm. You are damned and pitied. Leave, and pray I do not destroy you the moment you turn. Take this with you."
A creature of metal bone-shards scurried to me carrying something on its back: a cube. The cube was a dark, pitted metal, with slightly concave sides. It was gouged, as though something had tried in vain to scratch it open. Its corners were jagged and caked with oil and blood.
"What is its purpose, Demon Thane?" I asked with false humility.
"When the moment comes, speak to it the deepest truth," said Azax-Azog. "Choose a word for each side. Speak them carefully." Then he strode deeper into the molten crevasse, out of sight.
Perhaps I have more allies than just Kraynox. Or perhaps the demon wishes to use me against the other thanes. I care not; his petty goals will not matter when my work is done.
Sheoldred's night-learners watched my work for many cycles before they approached. At first I was wary, then I simply ignored them. Watch all you like, pawns. The plans are in my mind, not in this filthy flesh harvest.
But then, one day when only the black and blue orbs hung low on the horizon, they closed in. One moved close behind me. When I turned to face it, it moved to stay behind me. It began to hiss. At first I thought it would try to destroy me, but after a moment I realized it was delivering a message.
"The Whispering One desires your presence at the foot of the Father of Machines. You will go there now. You will go. You will speak when asked to speak. You will speak. You will pay respect. You will pay."
I made complying gestures. The night-learners left without interrupting my swarm or my flensers. Good.
And so I began my journey to the Father of Machines, careful to keep Azax-Azog's cube safe. I knew this could be the moment to which he referred. I passed through Geth's Vault; his throne sat empty. I traveled down into our domain and made my way to where the Father sat, tended by our most careful creations. I paused outside the chamber. I considered for a last time what I might speak to the cube, should the moment to which Azax-Azog alluded arise. Six words, six sides. I examined the scratchings on each side. I turned it round and round, practicing the rhythm. Yes, I knew exactly which six words to utter.
"Glory to the Father of Machines!"
* * *
"Please accept this entertainment I have arranged for you," said Sheoldred.
What was once Roxith, the Rot-Thane, lay in pieces on the throne room floor. He had failed to utter the right phrase to satisfy her cube-shaped night-coffer, as Sheoldred knew he would. And on his sixth word, "machines," its magic had been unleashed: a flurry of razors and shadows that violently, swiftly reduced him to a pile of segments. Materials.
Karn's eyes widened almost imperceptibly, as though he was finally reacting to the spectacle. He stirred, half-heartedly straining against the bonds that held him to his throne.
"At last the weakest of the thanes has offered his pathetic existence to you as a sacrifice, his only close-to-worthy gift," said Sheoldred. "Others will follow. But before then I will make something new of Roxith, to amuse you further. He will come to serve me."
The silver golem's face fell inert again.
"If he had understood our nature, he could have turned the coffer's magic on me, as I promised you. He had only to utter the words I had fed him through another weakling, another pretender. Those words describe our strength and glory more than any obsequious exaltation. Do you wish to hear the right words, 'Father of Machines'?"
Karn's fingers twitched but his face remained dead. Small creatures skittered to the pile that was Roxith and began to carry the parts away. After a long moment, Sheoldred leaned into Karn's ear and spoke.
"You will be first to fall."