We set out from Kabira today, trailing two horses extra, and a hurda packbeast to carry the rations, trapfinder's gear, barter for the crossing, machetes, and the relic itself, should we prove successful. The sun was relentless all this first day, carving a searing line in the sky over the hedron-strewn flats of Agadeem, its disk like the gaze of an unshuttered eye. Rather than skirt the coast, we set out on the northern road, hoping to reach the shores of the mainland, and the thickets of Turntimber, by month's end.
We are a smaller group than I'm accustomed to, as Kabira's far from most of the expeditioners' routes, but there's no apparent deficiency of talent among them, and I've enough years in the wild to furnish the remainder of skill our troupe may lack. I've hired Ghazzan, the first minotaur I've expeditioned with, a nearly silent but unmistakably strong man who favors the Makindi longaxe to the more traditional machete; Sali Oran, the lullmage, whose talents should prove useful should we encounter any storms or disruptions due to the Roil; and Keeda, "the Quick" as the advertisement read, a goblin trapfinder of the Lavastep tribe.
The terms are standard for relic hunters: what we find is mine by rights, and I shall pay them the other half of their due when we find a safe port again, relic in tow. I have not told them what it is we seek, which is exactly how I prefer it.
The sun mocks us, finding its way around our defenses. We all wear hats or headdresses, and Sali Oran applies some sort of salve to her scales, but the white stone hedrons scattered across this dry-grassed country reflect the sun, casting its rays back into our eyes. In the afternoon we let the hurda lope along on the western side, granting us some measure of shade. Still, I long for the dense, spiraling trees of the forest ahead, and hope Turntimber holds the item, and the answers, that I seek.
We've survived a thrice-unfortunate encounter today. We first chased off a lynx who had attacked our stores of smoked meats, which caused the hurda to bolt, nearly crushing Keeda (who thankfully lived up to his speedy reputation) and necessitating a wasteful chase to recapture the pack animal. In the chase we stumbled upon the lair of the antlered cat, a felidar, a famous resident of the polar regions of Sejiri but here golden-furred to blend in with the savannah. Its den was a cavern formed by the leaning shapes of two immense hedrons, and as our hurda lurched hysterically into its shadows, we heard only a swift crack as the felidar defeated its prey. Ghazzan slew the great cat with grand strokes of his longaxe, aided by my own not inconsequential sword-work, but we had to shove on without our pack giant. We loaded the rations and supplies onto the two spare horses, too much open grassland lying between us and our origin at Kabira to consider returning to purchase another hurda.
The road has long since abandoned us now, but we march on almost due north, and should meet some of the marshlands that surround the famous Crypt soon, and then the northern coast. Sali Oran objected to our route, calling it a "fool's course," but I reminded her of my years of experience traveling the continent of Ondu, and of her contract.
We've kept to the shade of the great hedrons for the midday, and have conducted the majority of our travel when the sun lies low to the horizon. The steeds object to the increased weight, but seem eased by the cooler temperatures of the mornings and evenings, and have borne the hurda's load so far.
Keeda the goblin has a strange approach to riding, crouching in the saddle on his bare feet and grasping the mane of his pony, using his knees to cushion against its bouncing gait. Every hour I'm convinced I'll see him fall off the animal, twisting an ankle, or worse, injuring his trap-finding fingers; but so far, those futures have not come to pass, and he has stayed nimbly atop it.
Tomorrow we journey into the deep ravine that separates the hedron fields from the marshlands, that being the most direct route into Turntimber; so tonight I counseled our party to lace their boots tight, and to sharpen whatever they intend to stab things with. In the cool of this night, I'm aware of a distinct premonition of the importance of our journey, and of a changing of fortunes to come, for me in particular.
Ghazzan died today. For six days we've been beset by the hazards of the marsh: the slimy cliffs of the ravine; the treacherous footing through the swamp route, which we had to navigate on foot, leading the horses; the gloomhunter bats and giant insects and other plague-bearing winged creatures; and the salivating marsh-maw traps, which only went hungry due to our trapfinder's uncanny intuition. The great minotaur had fended our company bravely throughout our time in the marsh, singlehandedly slaying seven large predators that would have dined on our flesh, and countless others that would have proved an annoyance; but in the end our axeman perished.
The tale was this. Last night the Roil disturbed the land as we slept, moving us off course or moving our course off of us, without opportunity for our lullmage to soothe the Roil's forces; and we found ourselves dangerously within range of the Crypt of Agadeem. We woke to Ghazzan's disconcerting, bleating cries, and discovered him being dragged in the direction of the cave-maw of the too-near Crypt. The creature who seized him I took at first to be a large vampire, its eyes luminous and evil and its fangs bared, but its smooth, curving horns and unearthly musculature persuaded me otherwise. I now believe it was a being sprung up from the bowels of the world, who used the cavern as an exit as a spelunker might use it as an entrance. We endeavored to fight off the beastly figure, assailing it with spell and sword, but its strength was immense, and its countenance and ravening roars threatened not unconvincingly that it would devour us every one should we prolong our resistance. We fled then, and later counted ourselves fortunate to have lost only Ghazzan. His pay shall be split among the rest of the company, as is equitable, and is all the same to my finances.
We made satisfactory time on a hard march since the Crypt, putting the remainder of Agadeem behind us and making grateful acquaintance with the northern coast. We are now aboard the Serpentcutter, having bartered our furs and Ghazzan's longaxe to its captain, and a friendlier sun ricochets off of the thin strip of the Silundi Sea between us and the mainland of Ondu. Our lullmage swims alongside the skiff at times, her scales and fins and hair glinting green and magenta through the wind-tossed waters; I can already make out the thin line of the far shore, glistening in colors that match hers. Whether this day was clear by fickle chance or by the imposition of her calming influence I cannot tell. After the marsh, despair threatened to take hold of my mind, but today I am cheered; if we speed at this rate, then there shall be time before the solstice for me to reach my goal.
The sun mocks us once more, sending spears of light down through the canopy of Turntimber, dappling the ground in misleading patterns and confusing the meager trail. The snakes have kept away so far, which is a blessing, but the serpentine shapes of the trees surround us in an almost constrictive manner, and their creaking voices are dire. Sali Oran remarked, and so I have heard it said, that the trees of Turntimber follow unseen forces in their shapes and growth, which set one's mind to hidden things, and to personal peril.
The elves here are wild, and swift of foot and bow, but they and their wolves have kept merciful distance for now. We follow the way that was told to me, renewing our bearings with landmarks as best we can, not letting the ink dry on our maps. Truth to tell, there's only one instrument whose guidance I trust; it is not a sphinx's riddle, nor a bardic saga, but what lies ahead of us in the heart of Turntimber.
Let it be known that I am thankful to Keeda the goblin, once of the Lavastep warren, for his contributions to our expedition. His instincts were enough to save us from the pit of vipers, but not enough to prevent him from falling into it himself, nor to prevent the release of the basilisk that followed; without him, we too would be naught but forgotten casualties to Turntimber.
Sali Oran told me that the omens were poor, and that Keeda's demise, combined with the actions of our machetes through the understory, would only encourage the land's appetites for our own deaths; but at my urging, she agreed to press on. I must admit that I feel the opposite; my blood hurries through my veins as we near the goal, and I feel I can hear encouraging words in the creaking limbs, as if the forest has selected us to succeed. The days stretch lazy and long as the solstice approaches, and I feel that I shall finally discover the device I seek, and learn the secrets that have been hidden from me for so long.
It has been a span of seemingly ceaseless days and unsatisfying nights as the solstice makes its inevitable march toward us. Sleep has become nearly impossible, and we have had to abandon all but two of our weary horses, as the way has provided us no way to keep them watered. We carry only a trace of the supplies we loaded back at Kabira, and only Sali Oran's grace and calmness of purpose has kept my spirits aloft and my limbs mobile. I have seen such death in one short journey that my mind would drown in a misery of remembered images. I know now that the answers cannot be worth the cost, even were I able to pay my debts from my own flesh.
It was on the day of the solstice, on a stone dais on a hilltop, overlooking the expanse of Turntimber like a lighthouse overlooking a sea of green waves, that we found the device. It was the Seer's Sundial, a massive stone hemispherium whose style and encircling metalwork projected shadows over a rune-inscribed bowl. The sundial was ancient, perhaps older than most of the forest around us, yet the creases in its huge basin were as crisp as sword-blades, the lichens unable to obscure its purpose. The sun cast sharp black shadows in the bowl, and Sali Oran and I gazed down into it as well. We watched the lines dance across the curves, studying the messages they carved and scribing diagrams of their likeness on parchment, hardly speaking.
The day has ended, and our journals and minds are full. It has become clear that, in some sense, the voyage was a success, in that the Sundial had given us answers; but the sun could not chase a chill from my mind, as we found answers to which we scarcely had questions. Careful work will have to be done to decipher what exactly we have seen in the Sundial's shadow; Sali Oran knows relic researchers at Sea Gate whom she believes can help in that regard, although the journey there will be many times as far and arduous. But I can see in her eyes what I feel in my heart: that we have grasped the significance of the Seer's Sundial well enough, and that it portends a future that holds the true measure of darkness, for us and for all people under the sun. In this expedition I sought to know how I would fare in my future days as a relic-seeker, self-interested as that now seems, and I learned that and far more; I learned more things, indeed, than I cared ever to know.
Of course the device itself has turned out to be much too massive to move, so I will have only this document, and what tales you can divine from the memories of my companion, to attest to our travels. We travel north from here, aiming to seek refuge at the trapper community of Graypelt, where can be found some acquaintances of mine. I feel I must unburden myself, not only of my substantial traveling gear, but also of the weight of the augury that I bear inside my mind, which may in time prove to be the heavier.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
When I cast a spell, I choose the target of that spell. Heck, with very little energy I control the elements and get to choose whether that Lightning Bolt will land on creature A, creature B or hit my opposing Planeswalker straight to the dome! This does not feel too strange, because I am the one who created the effect, so why would I not be able to direct it?
But then the Black mage in me meddles... When I use Doom Blade, I choose which creature will get slayed. When I Duress my opponent, I force him to discard a specific card. Even Mind Rot makes some sense to me: I force my opponent to give up some of his active memory, but he gets to choose what he wants to remember (This reminds me of studying for an exam: when I have to learn 7 chapters but only have time to study 5 of them, I choose which ones I will study, not my professor).
But how does Cruel Edict work? How come I have the power to make my opponent sacrifice one of his minions, but I don't control which? Or even more strange, how does Gatekeeper of Malakir work? Who forces my opponent to sacrifice a creature: The Gatekeeper itself or me? I would have expected that a Gatekeeper chooses itself which creature to keep permanently out of the gates, or maybe it is just capable of killing the weakest of all opposing creatures, but how come it gives the power to choose to the Planeswalker who did NOT summon this Warrior?
I hope you can explain the flavor behind the Cruel Edict mechanic!
Thanks for the question, Dustin! Mechanically, of course, "target player sacrifices a creature" is an important style of creature-kill for black. It helps the black mage have an answer for those unfriendly lines of text such as "shroud" or "protection from black," which definitely helps when those Devout Lightcasters and Great Sable Stags snicker at her from behind their hands (and hooves). But what's the flavor here? What's up with leaving these important choices to others?
I actually think the flavor of "target player sacrifices a creature" is pretty literal—and that's the cruelty of it. Here's a skit.
GREEN MAGE: My fierce allies, Craw Wurm and Great Sable Stag! Attack that foul necromancer!
BLACK MAGE: Chump-block the Wurm with my Zombie. I take three. My turn?
GREEN MAGE: Yeah, I'm done.
BLACK MAGE: Untap. Cruel Edict.
GREEN MAGE: What's this now?
BLACK MAGE: You must sacrifice a creature.
GREEN MAGE: Which one?
BLACK MAGE: You choose.
GREEN MAGE: (looks sadly at his two creatures) I choose?
BLACK MAGE: MUAAAHAHAHA!
GREEN MAGE: But ... I can't ... I don't wanna ....
BLACK MAGE: BAAAAHAHAHA!
Most of the time, the black mage has the tools to pick off enemy creatures if she so desires. But sometimes the fun is in letting the victim choose his own fate. Sure, it's "optimal" if Great Sable Stag is the green mage's last creature and Cruel Edict forces him to do what your Doom Blades can't. And sure, there are times when there's a throwaway Saproling or something around that makes your Edict a boringly easy choice. But when the time is right, there's some vicious enjoyment to be had in making the enemy hold the knife to his own creatures' throat, and giving him the awful decision of which of his babies he loves most.
Sometimes the agony of the choice is the price being demanded, much more than the actual sacrifice. Creatures like Gatekeeper of Malakir or Defiler of Souls can put that same decision to your opponent—all they ask is for a toll or tithe of a chosen sacrifice. They don't really care what thing pays with its life—they just want you to pay, and to thereby prove your respect of their power.