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By Doug Beyer A tale of Ravnica


One

It was in the last days of the fraying Guildpact, in the senate chamber of the Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, that Modar Bejiri advanced to receive his field hussar's brooch. Modar wore his court dress uniform, feckless white against his blue vedalken skin, and his booted steps echoed in the hall. Broad marble columns seemed to march past him, and the sharp angles of the enormous Azorius Eye, centered in stained glass on the wall ahead, moved closer to him as he approached his superior officers.

As a field hussar, he would have full rights to leave Prahv. Modar had already planned his route into the wilds of the Tenth District, where he could ply the measured justice of his guild where it was most needed. And the promotion represented all he had worked for in his career as hussar of court. With his mouth a restrained line and his eyes locked on the face of the district imperator, he marched.

He stopped before the imperator and saluted sharply. The imperator returned salute and spoke.

“Court Hussar Modar Bejiri of the Prahv Senate Elite Guard,” the imperator recited. “You have been selected for special dispensation by order of the Azorius Senate. As you accept this token you are afforded the rank, title and responsibilities of Field Hussar First Standing, by which authority you shall advance the principles of law and reason as specified in the Bylaw Scrolls and interpreted by the Grand Arbiter of the Azorius Senate, and by which acceptance you forego the rank, title and responsibilities of Court Hussar, effective immediately.”

Modar did not nod or bow. He stood straight and said, “I accept.”

The district imperator unbuckled Modar's old signet brooch and clasped the field hussar's brooch in its place on his cloak. Somewhere, outside the walls of Prahv, spire-crows ululated, a sound thinned by a rising wind.

Two

“Drake eggs, fresh as you please, guildsman,” said a tattooed crone as she held up a basket laden with blue-speckled, leathery sacs. Fragrant smoke curled around her from a nearby hookah hawker, and from atop the raised stage that formed the center of Tin Street Market, a bow-necked viashino warbled a solo on a bent rattlehorn.

Field Hussar Modar Bejiri surveyed the marketplace from the height of Ashmane's saddle. As he put gentle pressure on Ashmane's flanks, they ambled along the seams of what looked to Modar like a patchwork quilt—rough textures bound to clash, yet sewn into pleasing order by mercantile necessity. So fascinated was he by the structure of Tin Street Market that he almost didn't hear the truncated moan—the unmistakable sound of a man's last cry before unconsciousness.

If any marketgoers heard the cry, they gave no indication. Modar pulled on Ashmane's reins and swung toward the source of the sound, a hollow between two shopfronts. The hollow led to an alleyway, a dim space shunned by the tall buildings flanking it. Even before he saw the crumpled body, Modar caught sight of dark, rolling lines of blood.

A woman in Boros uniform stood over an enormous corpse—it must have been an ogre, perhaps a bodyguard or a manual laborer for the inn. Blood was still settling in the mortar lines of the street, surrounding each cobblestone with crimson. She was no Wojek investigator—her hands, tipped with jagged black fingernails, dripped with the blood of the victim.

“Halt!” Modar shouted as he dismounted. “As Cour—as Field Hussar of the Azorius Senate, under authority of Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, I command you to desist or face prosecution under the laws of the Guildpact.”

The woman turned toward him, grinning. She sank her claws into the body, and runes on her gauntlets glowed and hummed. Her grin morphed into a fat-lipped sneer as her face transformed before Modar's eyes. In a moment, she had become a huge, hairy ogre—Modar glanced down—she had taken the exact form of the victim. The shapeshifter's newly meaty hands ended in the same rough black claws it had had in the Wojek woman's form.

“You're next, vedalken,” it sneered.

Three

Where a moment ago there had been a Wojek officer, an ogre now leered with dripping claws. A thick vein bulged on its cheekbone. Modar was a witness to its guilt in one murder, and had evidence that it had committed a second—against a Boros guildmember. The shapeshifter-as-ogre lunged at Modar, hurling its newfound weight at him like a boulder.

Modar's training kicked in before his mind did—he sidestepped and rotated his body to let the shapeshifter lunge past, and stepped into the brute's blind spot behind him. Modar drew his gladius and settled into a defensive stance. Only then did he notice how close the shapeshifter had come: the front of his tunic had a ragged, horizontal tear in it, with Modar's untouched blue flesh peeking through.

The shapeshifter stumbled and turned, grinning with a jumble of snaggles. “You shouldn't have left your desk, lawman,” it said, shaking tatters of Modar's tunic from its claws. “What is it today, a bank holiday?”

This needed to end, and soon, Modar thought. “Citizennnn of Ravnnnica, by orrrder of the laws and strrrrictures of the Guillldpact...” he intoned, layering the words of an arrest over the opening hum-sing of a binding spell, pointing the tip of his gladius at the ogre's belly.


“No arrests today, lawman.” The shapeshifter took a step and threw a haymaker, leaving its body unprotected; Modar leaned in with the gladius, still hum-singing, and sank the blade up to the haft just below the ribcage. Modar's blow had landed—but so did the shapeshifter's, on Modar's cheek.

The force of the blow twisted Modar's head around, his body following after, until he felt himself collapse to the ground, landing uncomfortably on a pile of his own limbs. The binding spell was lost, and so, possibly, were a couple of front teeth. He managed to look up through one eye, as the other was closing rapidly of its own volition.

The shapeshifter shook with laughter, the handle of the gladius shaking with him. Blood streamed along the underside of the hilt, dropping red dots before the shapeshifter's feet. It spoke with a wet wheeze. “You forget; I don't need this body.” It coughed once, raggedly. “Not when I can have yours.”

The ogre leaned over and grasped Modar by the cloak-clasp; he was immensely strong and lifted Modar easily in one hand like a cat by its scruff. The ogre's other hand made a fist and reared back for a crushing blow. This was it, Modar thought-arrest was out of the question. It was escape or death now.

Modar shouted a knight's charm, the shortest one he knew, and the air around the shapeshifter swam with spiraling lights. It wasn't much, but it was enough. The ogre's punch had begun arcing toward Modar's chest, but now it was slowed to a crawl. Modar pried his neck out of the cloak and dropped to his feet. He clicked his tongue, summoning Ashmane, and climbed into the saddle. His left eye was fused fully shut now by the swelling welt on his face, but he saw his field hussar's brooch hanging from the cloak in the ogre's hand. Just before the slow-spell ended, Modar reached out and tore the brooch free, and was off.

Four

“Arrest is out of the question, hussar,” the district imperator droned, his voice echoing in Prahv's senate chamber. “The Guildpact prohibits direct action against the member of a guild, without a documented warrant signed by the presiding senators. You yourself have given evidence that this is no mere street thug—that it displayed behavior consistent with membership in a certain guild—therefore your request is denied. You may seek the senators' approval for a warrant during their next caucus, six days hence.”

Modar clenched his teeth. One tooth was loose, barely lodged in his mushy gums where the shapeshifter's blow had landed. His whole face was sore.

He forced himself to rearrange his thoughts. Keep perspective, Field Hussar. If the Azorius don't uphold the Guildpact, who will? But the shapeshifter must be stopped; others will die.

“Pursuant to clause sixty-two of the Military Procedure section of the Hussar's Disciplinary Code,” Modar said, “I request an emergency writ of arrest for the capture of a hussar officer.”

“What hussar officer?”

“Me. I request a writ of arrest for the capture of me, Hussar Modar Bejiri.”

If the district imperator reacted emotionally, he didn't show it - but the pause was telling. “For... you.”

Modar did not waver.

“But... an emergency writ requires a relic of authority. You don't have one.”

Modar handed him the field hussar's brooch. The imperator stared at it for a moment, then nodded. “This accords with procedure. The emergency writ will take three hours to prepare. Hussar Modar Bejiri will be arrested at that time.”

“I will be at Tin Street Market.” He turned to go.

“But you are no longer a field hussar—you haven't the authority to leave Prahv.”

“Put it in the details of the writ,” Modar said, and left, his boots clicking on the glassy marble.

Five

Modar didn't have much time. Ashmane sensed his urgency and leaned into a full gallop without Modar's spurs. As he rode, one moment stuck in Modar's mind—the moment when he saw the Prahv Senate Guard for the first time.

It was a training exercise in Prahv's central square. They stood shoulder to chrome-plated shoulder, every soldier locked into plateclad formation. Modar, a young errand-runner for a middle bureaucrat, clutched the package he was carrying and, struck in awe, forgot his errand.

The soldiers of the Guard lunged forward with military spears, their azure capes billowing behind them like a bright, singular wave. When they snapped back into a defensive position, Modar wondered how they maintained such precise unison. Were they whispering subtly to one another? Was their exercise so well-rehearsed that they had internalized the rhythm of the timing? Modar only learned after he had joined the Hussars that the Senate Guard was guided by telepathic command, and that the soldiers' remote-eye commander might be blocks or even entire districts away. Modar only knew that this was the way he wanted to be—part of this structure, this guild whose purpose was to govern Ravnica with the glory and universality of wisdom.

Not that he felt much of that wisdom now. What had he done? He was cut off from his rank, searching a city alone for a shapeshifting murderer, and hunted by his own guild due to his own instructions—where was the wisdom in that?

He rubbed his cheek, swollen to a black welt from the shapeshifter's fist, as Ashmane slowed to a canter inside the Tin Street Market. It's the law that I must uphold, he thought—the highest law, the truth behind the reams of regulations. The Guildpact may prevent our arrest of this shapeshifting miscreant, and Azorius law may forbid me from directly interfering, but the truth is that these people, these men and women of Ravnica, are in danger from this murderer, and I must stop him. But first I must find him.

Modar returned to the alleyway where the shapeshifter had attacked him. He had only been gone a short while—the sun was just now setting behind the spire-spiked horizon—yet the body was gone and the blood had vanished. Had other agents transported it away, and cleaned the cobblestones?

He turned back to the Market itself. Faces swam before him as the evening light became the harsher glow of Izzet weirdlamps and torchlight. Shadows twisted ominously, surrounding him, closing in on him. The minutes ticked by. Modar lurched Ashmane this way and that, trying to catch the eyes of face after unfamiliar face, hunting for that leering malice he had seen in those borrowed ogre's eyes.

The shapeshifter could be anyone now. It would be smart enough to take another form—which meant it had killed again. Modar dug his spurs into Ashmane's flanks, a curse welling up in his throat. Why did he even think the brute was still in the Market? He could be anywhere by now. And he had no spells to search such a wide area. And the Senate Guard was coming for him, their silver spears in hand, his own writ granting them authority over him.

He knew only one truth about the shapeshifter. One fact about this villain stood out, and Modar hoped it would be enough. He stopped Ashmane at the market's raised stage, where a doomsayer was shouting raving prophecies about the reemergence of ancient titans. Modar dismounted and asked for the floor.

Six

“I am Modar Bejiri, Field Hussar of the Azorius Senate Guard, and I require your attention,” Modar intoned with the full extent of his lungs. He boomed the announcement over the din of the twilight commerce, and faces turned toward the stage bearing reactions that varied from annoyance to impatience. “I am conducting an investigation of several deaths in this Market. For my investigation, I have been granted the rank of imperator, giving me broad rights in this district and in the Azorius Senate. If anyone has information that may lead to the capture of those responsible, please bring it to my attention. Thank you.”

Then, to the irritation of all the marketgoers within earshot, he repeated his announcement. Then he repeated it again, and spelled his name clearly.

He hoped that would be enough. He had given the shapeshifter would have everything it needed—promise of a powerful position, his personal identity details, and his exact whereabouts. The next move would have to be the doppelganger's.

A motley line of humanoids followed him from the stage to a nearby kabob tent. He conducted a series of interviews, each of which followed the same pattern:

“State your name, citizen.”

“Shove it up your rectal cavity, bureaucrat.”

“Do you have information about this crime?”

“I have some ‘information' for you. Your kind ain't wanted. Stay out of Tin Street.”

“I am looking for an ogre who...“ And then the interviewee would either snort gruffly and leave the tent, or upend whatever basket or bucket of day-old goods he or she was holding down the front of Modar's uniform, then snort gruffly and leave the tent.

After many such interrogations, Modar glanced around the next hoodlum in line. He could see the stars coming out through the doorflap; he was running out of time. The emergency writ for his arrest was probably already issued, and the Senate Guard would soon...

“You gonna interview me, lawman?” said the bearded troll before him.

At the same time, Modar heard the unison clip-clopping of horses in formation coming from outside. “Just a moment, sir,” he started.

“Your Senate Guard is here; they'll want a report from you, imperator,” said the troll, and clamped his enormous mitt around Modar's throat. “And I intend to give them a good one.”

Modar felt the claws cutting into his neck, and knew he had his man. Instinctively he reached for his gladius, but his scabbard was empty. The troll grinned, produced a blade, and tucked it right under Modar's chin: it was Modar's gladius, clutched by the shapeshifter's gleaming black claws.

“Say goodbye, lawman,” said the shapeshifter.

There was a raw sound of ripping canvas as the tent spontaneously tore in two. An arrest team of Azorius soldiers stood in mounted formation, led by the district imperator in a spellcasting pose. “Modarrrr Bejiri, by orrrrder of the laws and strrrictures of the Guildpact,” began the imperator.

Modar's last thought as he grabbed the shapeshifter's wrists and pulled his body down on top of him—as the two of them tipped over the kabob bar and crashed into a heap behind it—as he summoned all of his strength to pull the shapeshifter's claws deep into his chest—as the shapeshifter's bones began to rearrange themselves into the anatomy of a vedalken knight—as the villain's laughter rang out as he took Modar's form—was that now, justice would properly be served. He closed his eyes and imagined the spires of Prahv, and the azure banners flapping in the wind.