The Timmerians noticed the change in the atmosphere immediately. It was a relief to suddenly be bathed in the darkness they so loved. This continent was an arid desert to them, and Asher's dementia space was an extraplanar oasis. However, now the fiends were faced with a problem. They had been given two basic imperatives that now conflicted: if someone sought to capture one of their own, they were to hound and destroy that person. However, if they found unusually powerful magical artifacts, they were to retrieve them immediately. The things inside the big metal man were quite tempting, but perhaps not quite tempting enough to override the directive to destroy Asher now that he was within their grasp.
The fiends decided to do some reconnaissance.
Casting aside the limp, bled out form of the fleshy human they had run into, the frontmost fiend pressed open the wooden door of Asher's room.
A wave of corruption spread out.
The room was taken up by a large gaping wound in reality. The space was already filled with terrible, chittering things that all looked up eagerly as the door opened. The largest of them, a malformed, blackened dragon that clung like piping to the walls of the small room, breathed smoky breath out of the door.
The fiends pulled the door shut again.
This was going to be more complicated than they had thought.
Unfortunately, the Timmerians were not, for their viciousness, particularly good at coming up with viable plans. Thus it was that they (ignoring the screams from the other rooms as they hovered and pondered) decided upon this course of action:
They would go and gather that large, powerful engine from the golem, sacrificing one of their number in the process. The two would return, fatally damage the engine, and use the ensuing explosion to destroy their foe. It was a brilliant example of Timmerian logic: their imperative was only to retrieve artifacts. Once they had them, the destruction of their foe became a greater priority than returning the stolen artifacts to their master.
This was, unfortunately, a necessary problem with their functioning. Early in their existence, the fiends had not been capable of defending themselves. Now, they were able to use the artifacts freely, even if it occasionally led paradoxically to their own destruction.
Each of the fiends pulled out an assortment of wicked looking weapons.
They were going down, but they certainly weren't going down alone.
Androlene sagged, eyes closed, against the wall, letting the empty cup droop in his hand. The running spring--a fountain bubbling up at slightly more than waist height at the center of the small, enclosed break room--rolled gently across its stones and onto the reflecting pool in the floor. The siren sighed and ran his hand through his feathery hair. Running water did wonders to sooth his mind but, he reflected ruefully, it could do little for his worn voice. He quietly tried singing to himself. To a human the notes would have sounded stunningly beautiful, but the siren could detect very slight errors in pitch and tone, the product of exhaustion.
"Kirsh, Kirsh what have you gotten us into?" the siren sighed softly.
He almost immediately received an answer. The ears of Sirens are quite sensitive; it is a necessity for such musical creatures. Thus, despite the faintness of the sound, despite his weariness, Androlene immediately tensed when he heard the scrape from outside the open arch leading to the rest of the hospital. In that moment, he noticed a change in the sound of the water. Glancing over to the trickling spring, he saw that the water had become brackish, thick, foul smelling. He had, of course, never seen a swamp, but he had worked in the hospital long enough to see corruption. Not all diseases are born of black magic, after all.
What he saw creeping from the water, from the door, along the walls... this was corruption incarnate.
Androlene had never felt anything like what he felt now. His heart pounded in his chest, filling his ears with its sound, almost loud enough to block out the scrape from the doorway. He edged away from the door slowly, trying to move silently, out of sight. Black tendrils crept along grey marble, and a faint muttering filled the air. He could not make out the words, but his ears knew the cadence, the repetition, the strange pitches. It was a voice of muttered madness. It filled the room like swamp mist, coming from every direction.
Androlene edged further, now trying to catch sight of whatever was coming, moving to position himself behind the fountain and the open arch. His eyes never strayed from the door. They would not adjust upon the darkness outside the room; the atrium was simply too bright compared to the dim hospital. And yet, he swore something shifted in the gloaming, scraped, lurked, watched. He was filled with an urge to speak, to sing, to make some noise to break the endless stream of mumbling babble, but he could not. His throat was tight. For the first time in his life, the siren was incapable of making a sound.
At this moment of realization, this height of panic, he suddenly understood the voice.
"It's ok, Asher, they won't find us here."
The voice had come from right beside him.
He hadn't thought, after all, to look behind the fountain.
The small, naked figure crouched, head bowed, close enough in the small room for Androlene to touch. It slowly raised its head, revealing a red wreck that failed to coherently resolve in Androlene's sight, as though it had been painted then doused in some diluting fluid by the horrified artist. There was just enough expression left, however, for the siren to tell that it was smiling.
"You're safe now."
Androlene found his voice once more.
From the silhouette, hovering high above yet still perfectly visible to the watchers below, a stream of multicolored, raw power issued forth, igniting the horizon. Even at this distance the screams of humans, aven, cephalids, centaurs... all were audible in their unified cries. They were cries of pain, but they were also cries of ecstasy.
Their Goddess had come.
"It's not real," Kirsh whispered, "It's not real, it's not real, it's a nightmare!" The aven laughed in a worryingly unsteady way. "It's just a dream, Dementia summoners summon nightmares, it's not real." He turned to Asher, who had laid himself against a rock, already exhausted from their brief struggle. "Tell me it's not real," he twittered piteously.
The dementia caster blinked. "But it's real."
The aven let out a small wail.
Asher adjusted his position, closed his eyes, and breathed in the smoke from his still-burning incense. He let out the smokey air slowly, meditatively. He had calmed down quite a bit after the initial shock of finding his Dementia Space taken over by Kirsh's mind. They were, after all, away from the immediate danger of the Timmerians. And if enemies appeared from Dementia Space, well... there was only one way to deal with such foes.
"We were put in a madness... I mean, a dementia space, the torturing madness of our master. It was a heavy madness. Urborg madness."
Kirsh looked up slowly, his quaking easing somewhat. Something had steadied in Asher's voice--he seemed more coherent now. But the man was, Kirsh realized with a start, a mess. His chest was painted with blood, and his limbs were torn by a number of gores and gashes. The aven hazarded another glance at the sky. She still hovered there, surrounded by a ghastly halo of power.
Kirsh's eyes narrowed. Still shaky, he got to his feet. He focused all his attention upon Asher. He did not pay attention to the figures standing in silence around the two Planeswalkers, statue still and staring in the ash and dust cloud. His clawed feet picked unsteadily across the rubble toward the fallen dementia caster, already mechanically beginning to strip pieces of cloth from his robe, as Asher continued his thought.
"There were two of us - two left alive in that place. He said we were safe hiding. Safe in madness." Asher caught Kirsh's gaze as the aven, still trembling, began to rebind the summoner's wounds. The summoner chuckled, smoke shooting from his nose in brief bursts. "Have you ever tried to hide? From your madness?"
"What..." Kirsh's voice warbled on the word. He winced and took a deep breath, beginning again. "What happened when your friend hid?"
"Facesh-shredder," the man intoned, as though reciting, his voice briefly returning to its formerly unsteady state. "Very ra-rare. N-nearly un-un-undefeat - unstoppable."
Kirsh suppressed a shudder. He was binding Asher's arm and didn't want to jostle it. His attempts to remain steady were rendered moot by another rumble in the distance, and another chorus of souls wrenched from the world. Kirsh knew that these bursts of power would result, eventually, in a great rift in time and space that would suck most of the rest of Otaria's vitality away. "Is that what was chasing you?" Kirsh asked, half as a way of keeping Asher's mind busy, half as a way of occupying his own.
The summoner laughed. "The Timmerian Fiends! How can you compare... They're not like Dementia. Constructs. Following me through the outer madness... I mean, the Blind Eternities." He shook his head and gestured with his free arm, as though mimicking the chaotic spinning of the space between planes. "I tried to capture one. It's so hard. They fall to pieces."
Kirsh looked at the other arm. The swirling dust from the shattered plain had gotten into the wound. He honestly wasn't sure what that might do to the summoner, but he wasn't about to take risks. The healer drew upon his mana and called a thin trickle of water to wash the cut.
"They notice when you do that," Asher remarked conversationally.
Kirsh felt the feathers of his back raise slightly. He glanced up from his work.
The figures were closer now, and he could begin to make out their forms. They weren't attached to the ground, but hovered, as though in rigor mortis, suspended above the plain, their clothes flapping gently in the dust storm. He could almost see their faces...
"She'll be here soon. What's yours?"
"What is my what?"
Asher gestured again at the sky with his bound hand, wincing.
Kirsh swallowed. "Karona," he whispered, as though her name would draw her close. As though in answer, there was another flash of light across the sky, and the aven swallowed hard, trying not to imagine whole armies razed in an instant in the cruelest ways possible, limbs torn off, bodies boiled alive or frozen solid by bursts of pure mana, mouths agape in supplication. "The mystics referred to her as Deceit, almost as though she had always been a part of their mythology. She was a false goddess, a Planeswalker that absorbed the mana of our entire world. Our continent... our people... were her plaything," he spat bitterly, wrapping the cloth on Asher's arm a bit too tight, not noticing the summoner's wince. He glanced upward again at the hovering shadow. Strange, he was sure she had been behind him...
"You can't hide from a nightmare," Asher whispered, eyes closed, on the verge of passing out yet again.
Kirsh nodded and sighed. He understood, as much as he didn't want to. "Asher, my name is Kirsh of the Flats. Let me tell you about my nightmare."
The thing chasing Androlene smiled. It was so close. Soon it would feed.
And then, suddenly, an arm yanked its quarry out of view into a doorway. A moment later the horror collapsed as one of its legs was shattered by a large piece of metal. It screeched in pain and twisted its neck impossibly around to gaze at its attacker: a somewhat chubby man with pale olive skin and an exceptionally peeved expression, dressed in a knotted robe that used to be white but now was stained red and black. "You idiots think you're so invulnerable, don't you?" the man growled. "Well I've been studying the art of medicine for sixty years, and I know exactly how to break even a freak body like yours."
Androlene looked up in surprise to see Eurida staring at him, her hand on his arm, her other hand holding a sword. In the background were a number of other survivors--healers and patients alike--looking scared and holding makeshift weapons. "Told you I had a bad feeling," Eurida said with a nervous grin.
Androlene shook his head. "The sword...?"
"I keep it behind the front desk, just in case."
After a moment the squeals and wet concussive sounds from outside the room ceased and Krosos stalked into the double-wide hospital room. He looked over the survivors he and Eureda had gathered. "Good to see you're alright, Androlene," he said gruffly and patted the siren's shoulder.
Krosos walked to the center of the room and clapped for attention. The others winced, imagining, as one, the effect the sound would have on the fiends outside. "Listen up, people," Krosos began, "that patient we pulled in this morning had some sort of brain problem, and he seems to have pulled a whole bunch of his own issues out into reality. So, in an effort to keep everyone here from being gnawed to death by tentacled corpses, we're going to charge down to where he is, and see if we can't get whatever this is to go away."
The alarmed hospital staff and rescued patients nodded in unison.
"Now, if it was just the horrors out there we had to worry about, this would be easy." He ignored the stares of disbelief and held up the head of something that looked pasted together from a dozen different animals. "We might also run into these things! I've killed this one, as you can see, but they've got weapons, and they're formidable. They seem to be fighting the horrors as well, though, and odds are they're trying to finish the job they started earlier with our mystery patient."
"Wait," Eureda interrupted, "if they're trying to kill the patient that's causing this, couldn't we just let them do it, rather than suicidally charging down into the basement to fight monsters? There's no sense in risking more lives."
Krosos fixed her with a baleful glare. "Because we are healers, and if there's a way we can stop this without letting our patient die, we are going to do it! This is our calling, why we became healers. Or have you forgotten that?"
Eureda blushed and looked away from the much older healer. The others were silent. There was a pause as Krosos hefted his makeshift weapon thoughtfully.
"Besides, I just won't be satisfied without a few more swings at these bastards."
The hallways were eerily empty as the band of makeshift warriors descended down the ramp into the lower level of the hospital. In the distance, however, screams and howls echoed in the dark. Krosos and Eureda took up the forward guard as the others crowded in fearfully behind. Soon they were close to the place where Asher and Kirsh had been. Bodies lay strewn about the floor, some destroyed by mortal weapons, others ripped apart by horrors. Krosos winced and gestured his band forward. The wall surrounding the door to Asher's room had been blown out, and noises of battle came from within.
Krosos made to move forward but Eureda pushed him back and gestured emphatically to her sword, a look of determination on her face. The healer paused for a moment and then simply nodded. Androlene noted that as she turned to the wall her lips turned up slightly, suppressing a nervous smile. She edged toward the breach, with Krosos only a step behind. The others saw her head peek around the corner of the broken wall, saw her eyes widen.
Then, in a flash, before the others could react, a long, wormlike, toothy tongue lashed out of the breech, wrapped around Eureda's waist, and dragged her into a waiting draconic maw. She didn't even have time to scream.
Krosos gave a strangled cry and leaped back against the far wall. This afforded him a full glimpse of the room within. His eyes widened in shock. In the center of the room lay what could only be the engine of a titanic golem, the size of the now shattered hospital bed. It was whining and glowing in a way that clearly indicated an imminent overheating. Guarding the engine jealously was another strangely patched together creature, swinging wide with a wicked looking blade at the horrors that attacked him, keeping them just barely at bey. Where Kirsh and Asher had been a bleeding spot of glowing corruption hovered in the air, leaking a kind of radiant darkness into the room.
Androlene placed a shaky hand on Krosos's shoulder, staring at the place where the young healer had stood not a moment before. "Are we... are we going to charge?"
Krosos shook his head in stunned resignation. "There's... there's no way we can fight those things." He wiped his hand across his face and tried not to look at the bitten off blade of Eureda's sword lying amidst the corruption. "Gather the survivors together. We're going to have to evacuate, and let the monsters blow each other to oblivion."
"And..." Androlene swallowed, "And Eureda and... and... Kirsh?"
Krosos gritted his teeth. "There's nothing we can do for them now."
Kirsh coughed and hacked, dust and ash clogging his throat. Shakily drawing himself up upon his talons and knees he blearily opened his eyes. He immediately wished that he hadn't.
The bodies of the other members of the caravan lay strewn about the dusty plain. In the distance another explosion lit the sky; another chorus of adoring, dying screams issued into the air. The garish light that played across the heavens, the product of the distant war, illuminated the scene in hideous detail. There was Tereh, dead with her staff plunged through the feral, twisted form of one of the goblins that had ambushed them. Malik was lying beside three of the spiderlike pods... or at least a still smoking part of him was. Karea's headless body had impaled itself upon one of the ragged, broken spars of a tent. The other nomads--his adopted family--lay in similarly blasted and broken poses in the small dip in the dunes where the goblin ambush had taken place.
Kirsh choked back a sob and staggered to his feet, rushing through the burning remnants of the caravan, twisting his head desperately around, looking for another survivor.
"Kirsh!" a ragged voice called. The aven let out a cry of desperate relief, involuntarily spreading his wings as he ran, lifting from the ground and gliding over the rubble of the camp. He collided with the youthful looking nomad, and the man staggered back a few steps, embracing Kirsh tightly and sobbing into his feathers.
"Kol, Kol, thank the ancestors you're alive." Kirsh whispered, holding the shuddering mystic to him.
After a too brief moment, Kol pushed away from Kirsh and, wiping his tears roughly, looked around the camp. "We need to get out of here."
"Wait, Kol, let me see if there's anything that I can do to help the others."
"No!" the young man shouted, "Don't be a fool, there's nothing you can do for..." For a moment Kol was unable to continue speaking. "We need to get to a safe place. Look at this!" He gestured to the sky. They could both see an indistinct shadow hovering there, haloed by magic, spitting destruction onto the distant combatants. "That... thing is going to kill us too if we don't find somewhere to hide." He grabbed the aven by the hand and pulled him away from the caravan. Kirsh looked back once more at the carnage. The corpses began to glow as he watched, the souls of the mystics finally attaining the wings that they had longed for in life. They had trained him to see the spirits of the ancestors, and now, through their teachings, they were visible. His eyes grew wet with tears and he feared for a moment that he would stumble.
It was Kol, however, who stumbled, catching his foot upon a round, claylike object buried in the sand. There had been one last attacker, waiting dormant beneath the debris. Kirsh's eyes widened. The sides of the no longer dormant creature blazed red and cracked apart. Kirsh's tongue seemed to move sluggishly in his beak as he formed the first words of a spell of protection, and then--
He felt himself falling away, pushed by Kol's hand. As he fell, he watched the flaming feline form burst forth from the shell. Kol's sword clove into it, but the hellish cat strafed across his body, incinerating his sword arm whole. Kol collapsed to the ground as the cat dissolved back into the aether, letting out a terrible, final sigh as he fell.
Kirsh scrambled forward on his hands and knees toward Kol, already desperately summoning mana from the plains to heal his companion. Kol turned his blackened face and half smiled, half winced. His unburned hand pressed against Kirsh's talon and he shook his head. His mouth moved, trying to form words, then, realizing that he had been robbed of speech, the nomad simply pointed to the sky.
Kirsh shook his head. "No, no, you, that's ridiculous, you're not even an ancestor yet! You can't... you can't join them." The aven began to weep. "You can't leave me!"
Kol opened his mouth again. "Sorry," he formed. The mystic sighed and closed his eyes.
Kirsh rose unsteadily to his feet and looked out upon the blasted plain. Otaria was ruined. The continent had been utterly ravaged. Kirsh looked up to the sky and let out a piercing cry. In the distance, a flock of carrion birds rose into the churning dust and gloom. "It isn't fair!" the aven screamed, "How dare you rip this world apart? How dare you become a goddess? All you can do is destroy!"
Around him the souls were rising. He felt the pulse of the land churning beneath his feet. It was a caged pulse that sought release, the land itself desperate to join Karona's mad war game. Kirsh's talons clenched and his eyes glowed.
"It should have been me."
The plain was split by fissures of light. Kirsh felt power flooding into his body eagerly, a power somehow called forth by the being that floated far above. So be it. If she was the Incarnation Deceit, he would too become one with Dominaria and be the Incarnation Transcendence. There was a strange feel to the mana, but Kirsh simply did not care. This was the reason he had lived so long, he was sure, and now spark of power inside him was fanning to flame. He ignored the strange tug far above the island and began to drink in the plain, and Skycloud, all the power of his home.
Their bodies rising with a rising howl, the souls of the nomads were drawn from the sky. Their wings disintegrated, raining glowing feathers down upon the blasted scene. Kirsh raised his arms. He twisted the very nature of his healing spells into something new, something far more powerful and terrible. He rose in the air slowly, hovering over the battlefield, and let out a cry. Although the bond between soul and body was severed, he would restitch them. He would become a god and cheat death itself.
And then, as with every other being that had ever tried to harness the powers of the Mirari, that strange artifact that had called Karona into being, he felt the flow of power turn strange and hideous. What would have been impossible for a normal Planeswalker had been made possible through the influence of the strange broken artifact. But this possibility came with a price.
Kirsh finally became aware of the howling void over his head, a great rend in the fabric of the world. The sky and the land alike screamed out in anguish as his act of defiance further widened the tear that Karona had created upon entering the world. The bodies of the nomads hovered above the battlefield, frozen, souls caged in rapidly mummifying flesh. He had failed. They had not been restored to life after all, but a frozen, calcified undeath. And now, unable to stop the rush of mana, Kirsh perceived the greatest cost of all:
He had contributed his small part to the death of the world.
The aspiring god swooned in midair. The world spun around him, the howl of the rift, the land, and the corpses, frozen in their agony, roared in his ears. He fell, out through the void, out of the agony of time and space, into the Blind Eternities, and into merciful darkness.
Kirsh finished his story, and finished the last binding upon Asher's leg. He looked up. The mage was no longer listening--he had passed out. Kirsh did, however, have an audience, an unfamiliar being that he had missed, so wrapped up in the story of his past. She crouched on top of the stone that Asher rested against, and each time she shifted position a light rain of ash sprinkled down over the mage. Her body was a barely recognizable burnt and rotted thing, and her forearms were extended grotesquely into gapemawed wurmlike forms.
"Nice story, Kirsh."
The aven's beak dropped open in horror and astonishment.
"Oh, you thought your little mental connection with my dear Asher went in but one direction? Hah! The sort of fool's error I would expect from someone who would tap into a Dementia Master's brain!" The figure leered and leaned toward the aven.
"What are you?" he gasped, fighting the urge to back away. He couldn't leave Asher unprotected. His hands felt alongside his robes to the bags of herbs and talismans that helped him to recall his less frequently used spells. Something that would help, anything...
"I suppose he didn't get a chance to tell you. He talks so slowly, with his little weird stammer, and his misused words. Pathetic. He should introduce me first! I am, after all, the love of his life." The thing laughed a wretched, rasping laugh and gestured at itself. "This is what Asher does to things. He is corruption and burnt ruin! You know what he was doing with the Timmerian Fiends?"
"No, please go on," Kirsh said politely, still feeling his robes. No, that bauble was a minor cantrip... he tossed it aside and reached for another random item. Seaweed from Arkhos? A powerful tool for memory manipulation... good enough. He pushed just a bit of mana into the bag, mentally constructing the elements of the spell as the horror continued her rant.
"This idiot was trying to capture one of them alive so that he could collect a bounty set, according to rumor, by some mysterious, mystical Planeswalker! Isn't that absurd? Risking his life on some fool's quest, for an employer he's never met! And now, this is the most wonderful part, listen." She beckoned the aven closer, placing one of her long, flaccid limbs upon his shoulder. He shuddered with revulsion as the thing writhed around on his back. But... there! His memories rearranged and the key to the spell flashed in his mind. He moved closer and pressed a hand on Asher's chest and tried to think about the Skycloud Expanse.
"Now he's managed to corrupt an entire hospital! And each time someone dies because of his stupidity, I get stronger. You can't imagine how this feels," the thing moaned. "I've never felt so alive!" It paused and then began to laugh hysterically. "Alive, can you believe it?"
The thing took its member off of Kirsh's shoulder and stood upright. "The best part is that now Asher is unconscious in his own Dementia Space. I'm going to devour him from the inside out and wear his saggy flesh as a ****ing coat." The horror stood thoughtfully for a second. "Asher always wanted someone else as an audience." She beamed a crusted, sharp toothed smile at Kirsh. "You get to watch!"
Her slithering forearms spiked down through the air toward Asher's stomach--
And were stopped dead by a wall of glittering, glistening light. A ripple moved momentarily along the surface of the shield, and, with a rush, the shield gushed forth a beam of light that punched straight through the center of the horror. The light extended into the sky and, as if in response, the floating False Goddess of Mana rained more destruction upon the distant armies.
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Art by Lunar Mystic
Asher's former lover stood, stunned, a massive hole in her abdomen. Kirsh stood as well, his eyes narrowed, his wings spread. Around him, close enough to touch now, close enough to see, were the warped, hovering forms of his former family. He didn't care.
"This man. Is. My. PATIENT," the Aven shouted, the dust cloud spinning around him.
"No! No, it's not fair!" the thing wailed. "I finally was so strong, so strong!" molten tears ran down its cheeks. "Fine, then, you spoilsport, if I can't have him, I'll take your skin and become his lover once more!"
"You were never my lover," a voice croaked from between them. "She died." Kirsh and the nightmare looked down in surprise. Asher staggered carefully to his feet as Kirsh quickly came to his aid, helping him to stand. His blond and bloodied hair flapping in the dust storm, his eyes piercingly green despite the haze, the young dementia summoner looked his most terrifying creation in the face.
"You... You are my lack of self control."
The thing wailed and stretched its tentacle limbs out to its creator and master, to his face, his mouth, and finally, with a slurp, down his throat. The rest of her followed.
Kirsh let go of Asher, staggered back, retched, and vomited.
"I'm feeling much better now," Asher mused. "You are a powerful healer."
Kirsh nodded weakly.
Asher looked at him carefully. Then he looked up to the sky. Kirsh looked with him, and he could feel the watching horrors looking, too. The aven spread his wings and with a jump lifted off of the ground.
Asher grinned and closed his eyes. He bent down gingerly and picked up his incense censer. He lit it and swung it contemplatively from side to side. Kirsh's healing magic had worked wonders on him, and he had just enough strength now to properly deal with the Timmerians. The world began to slide and ooze around him, buckling and twisting and, eventually, sliding up his legs and back into his body. It was time to return to the world.
There were fiends to capture.
Far above him, Kirsh approached the shadow. He had, of course, never met Karona. He knew her only as a silhouette, and as a historical figure, her significance explained to him after the fact by Raleris and Mondemere. If she looked anything like Asher's fiends...
The clouds began to part. Her halo glistened like a second son, golden and blue, radiant and terrible. Her limbs were skeletal, and her wings...
Kirsh almost forgot to keep flapping his own wings, so great was his surprise. For before him floated not Karona, the False God of Mana, but a twisted, hovering aven, a creature wearing a carved mask of blue coral and pearl. Now he could see the truth of the halo: it was a wheel of souls, souls long denied the sleep of ancestors, howling their pain and adulation.
"I've been waiting a long time."
Kirsh nodded, throat dry. "I know. I know, but I've always held you back before, and I can still do it now."
The thing laughed coldly. "But you don't have to. I am Transcendence. You can embrace me and defy all the boundaries of reason and nature!"
Kirsh shook his head. "For this... I will have to. But you... but I am not Transcendence. I am not a god. And you..."
He looked directly at his nightmare's masked face. His own eyes stared back at him, but strange, cold, stripped of compassion, stripped of concern for anything but his own monomania.
"You are my loss of humanity."
The veil of dementia space was torn asunder; the dream collapsed.
With a shudder, Asher's horrors stopped moving and split apart. From out of them stepped--no, floated--skeletal forms, glowing as though touched by a distant, dusty sun. The watchers--Krosos, Androlene, and the other survivors--stood stunned at the sudden shift. The solitary remaining fiend seemed also confused. The engine, however, continued to wind up in the background, its high pitched whine going higher and higher as it overheated.
And then, a god stepped into the world.
He was radiant and terrible, his wings glittering shards of light. On his face, covering his beak, was a pearl and coral mask. The roof, weakened by the discharges of power within, collapsed. The being gestured, not even deigning to look, and blocks were suspended, then repelled far into the air. Even the great, twisted draconic horror that had crowded the room so fully before now crouched, stunned in the sudden light of sun and magic.
The Timmerian, sensing its end, began to draw upon the mana from Asher's dementia space... and found it blocked once more by Ameran's natural aura. The dementia space had been closed. For the first time in its unlife, the construct felt something like panic. It did not fear death. The Timmerian Fiends had, however, been imprinted with one prime command: never, ever be taken alive.
The glowing figure gestured with one clawed hand and the Timmerian felt itself frozen to the spot, constrained. A network of white lines spread across its body, holding it fast. Slowly but surely, each twisted limb was paralyzed. The bony, frozen mouth, for the first time since its creation, attempted to open, ripping flesh and teeth from their bearings as it struggled to scream. And then it was still, frozen in its silent terror, only its glass bead eyes rolling in its patchwork face.
The whine in the background was overtaken by a howl that stunned the listeners. The skeletal beings clustered around the overheating engine and, at another gestured command, began to twist and writhe, almost as though crumpled by some invisible hand. Their hollow eyes gazed up at their creator with a kind of adulation as, one by one, they disappeared, exiled to the void between worlds, taking whole chunks of the engine with them. In moments, the rig was gone.
And a second later, so was the god, as the final horror--the black dragon--swallowed this new sun whole.
Androlene involuntarily took a step forward and let out a cry as the figure was consumed. And then his eyes widened as the sides of the dragon split like an overripe fruit, acrid blood and ichor spilling across the floor. The dragon vomited light and bled glory, writhing around and howling its agony. From its bloated belly a clawed hand burst forth. It was followed by the strange figure of the glowing bird-man, carrying a bundle that could only be Eureda, bleeding from countless places, half of her left leg already dissolved. There was a brief moment when Androlene swore he could see her soul emerging from her body, but with a burst of light her wounds began to close and she gasped for breath. The figure strode over to the watchers and handed the body to a gape-mouthed Krosos.
And at that, the survivors did what came naturally.
Shakily, they knelt in reverence.
The being gazed around at his audience and seemed, suddenly, confused. There was a pause, and Androlene saw hesitation in the god's body language, a hesitation that confused him even as he knelt with the others, a hesitation that seemed to suggest a being at war with itself.
The mask cracked and split apart, and the glow faded, revealing the bloody, haggard face of Kirsh of the Flats. The aven blinked once, twice, and intoned, "It used to be much easier." And collapsed.
In the ensuing chaos, no one noticed a dark figure stand up from the corner, smile, and limp over to the still frozen Timmerian Fiend, gingerly shrugging on his pants and armor as he went. He sorted through his bag of things and dug out enough gold to, presumably, cover the damages, placing it conscientiously on the floor. And he added just a bit extra to pay for the cost of his healing. Kirsh had, after all, done a stunningly good job.
Wearing a smile on his face, Asher gripped the arm of the Timmerian Fiend and turned, sliding out of reality and into the chaos of the Blind Eternities.
Kirsh opened the door gingerly. He was still weak from the ridiculous burst of power his body had channeled less than one week prior. It had been so long since he used even the furthest extent of his healing strength. It had been centuries since he had used true combat magic.
The inside of the room was bright; they had taken down the window slats in order to ensure that the light would be almost blinding. Eureda sat huddled on her bed, dressed in a simple robe. Her face was covered with a pale mask that hid the scarring from the dragon horror's stomach. Her left leg and right arms ended in blackened stumps, still healing. Kirsh sighed and shut the door once more.
"She hasn't spoken to anyone since the event." The voice, though quiet, startled the aven and he jumped. He turned to see Krosos gazing at him. "I'll be honest, Kirsh, I've never dealt with something like this. I can heal her body, but her mind..."
Kirsh felt his taloned hand clench. "It would have been a greater mercy to let her die."
A moment later he was on the floor, Krosos standing over him angrily. "Never, ever let me hear you say that again. If it was only me and my staff here... sure, you would be right. There's nothing we can do for her. But we watched you get swallowed by that thing, and you clawed your way out with your bare hands. If anyone can fix her... it's you."
Kirsh shuddered and shook his head. "I don't want to play god. I can't!"
The head healer reached down, grabbed Kirsh by the front of his robes, and hauled him up to his face. "You think you can just hide from this?"
Kirsh's eyes opened and he stared at the man. With a start, he realized that Krosos was trembling and holding back tears. He thought back to that shadow in the sky, and to Asher's words.
"I can't help her yet," he began slowly, "because I don't know how."
Krosos set him down on his feet. "You don't know how to treat this sort of madness?"
Kirsh shook his head. "I have always studied the body and... neglected the mind. I will need to gather information. I may be gone quite a while..."
"Are you going after Asher?"
The aven shook his head again. "I may eventually try to track him down, but he has covered his tracks well. He got what he wanted, after all, and he did pay for our services." Kirsh sighed. "I thought for a moment, while in his Dementia Space, that I might offer to heal his mind, if I could only find a way. I think he would refuse the offer. He has made too many enemies, now, and he needs his nightmares to survive."
Krosos nodded. "He's found a way to coexist." The healer looked Kirsh over and finally nodded. "Until you return, Eureda is locked in her own mind. Please, for her sake, be fast."
Kirsh could not speak. He simply nodded tersely and, sensing that their audience was over, turned and walked down the hall. He would need to gather a great many things for this journey. It was the first time in years that he had Planeswalked for more than a brief period.
Turning a corner, lost in thought, the aven nearly collided with Androlene. The siren started back and Kirsh winced inwardly at Androlene's eyes twisted away from his own, looking at the wall. "You're going, then," the siren stated flatly, as always a powerful reader of character.
Kirsh nodded. "I need to find something to help that woman. I can't do that here."
Androlene nodded sharply. Kirsh waited for a response and, receiving none, moved to leave. He was nearly down the hall when he heard Androlene's musical voice once more.
"Just what are you?"
The aven turned and gazed at the man that had once teased him incessantly and now gazed at him with a mix of awe and terror.
"Are you an Incarnation? A god? What are you?" His musical voice was almost pleading now. In that voice, Kirsh sensed a mirror of his own memories, a reflection across time and the planes of that broken, blasted plain and the silhouette of a mortal that took on the mantle of godhood. The aven shook his head.
"No. I am a Planeswalker."
The aven turned and walked down the shaded hospital corridor, out into the light, his body a shadowed outline in the sun.