Elspeth picked up her pace to match Koth's, both moving as quickly as the debris-strewn platform allowed. Nahiri's sacrifice had moved them closer to their goal. It had also slowed them—save for Kaya—considerably, since tripping on the rubble would mean a long fall into the depths of the layer.
The hole in the pristine sky above them was still visible, a jagged wound in the porcelain perfection of this place, boiling with every color of Phyrexia. They hurried through a war, and while no one could have called them untouched by its horrors, for the moment, they were too small to attract attention.
Elspeth shot a venomous glance at the warriors overhead. Just you wait, she thought, as fiercely as she could. You'll regret what you've done to us.
They wouldn't. She knew that. Even if everything went perfectly from here, even if they plucked an impossible victory from this chaos, Phyrexia wouldn't regret destroying Mirrodin. They weren't made for regretting things. Phyrexia moved for the greater good and glory of Phyrexia, and in the end, that was all that mattered. All would be One, or nothing would exist at all.
The high bridge where they'd landed seemed too delicate to have withstood the impact of such a massive piece of Sheoldred's Coliseum. Even if the bridge would normally have been sturdy enough, the nature of their arrival should have lent them even more weight, the magnitude of Nahiri's sacrifice sending them plummeting into the fathomless white depths. Glancing over the edge, Elspeth could see farther into the layer below than seemed entirely possible. A lattice of alabaster platforms spanned the spaces all around them, connected by long bridges of crimson sinew.
After the tarnished necrogen wastes of the Dross Pits, this place reminded Elspeth of blood splashed across the white sands of Theros, sullying what should have been pristine. Koth, Melira, and the goblin engineers were born Mirrans. The Planeswalkers were strangers here, but this was Mirrodin, this was their plane, not Phyrexia's, no matter how much the glistening oil transformed it. They should never have looked out of place in their own homeland.
Clusters of buildings rose from platforms in the latticework like organic sculptures, blending the sleek curve of machined metal with the organic roughness of bone and sinew. Everything was red against white, a whole plane made over in Elesh Norn's image, like some terrible dream.
For all that the bridges were clearly designed to provide easy passage to multitudes of Phyrexians, they were empty save for the Planeswalkers themselves. The battle raging above them was too far away for even the echoes to drift down to them; they might as well have been alone. A faint song filled the air instead, as if the very structures sang to them, a Phyrexian hymn of horrors.
"Nahiri made a huge sacrifice, for us," said Koth. "We have to keep moving to honor the ending she chose."
"She was infected," said Elspeth. "I saw the changes in her, right before the end. There's no way she hadn't realized it was happening. But she never said anything."
"She told me," said Melira, moving through the group to pace them. "She asked me if I could help her when we were back at the Furnace."
"Could you have?" asked Elspeth.
"I could," said Melira, and took a deep breath. "I could have helped her, but reversing the process of phyresis is like pulling a bramble from fertile soil. It throws down a hundred roots. When you dig out one, you find a hundred more. Repairing her body from the damage already done would have left her incapacitated for days. She would have had to stay behind."
"She would have seen that as wasting time we didn't have," said Elspeth.
They had managed to catch up to Kaya while they were speaking. Kaya looked at them, listening, before she asked, "Could you do that sort of healing for Jace?"
"If he was willing to let me," said Melira.
Kaya looked back to where Jace walked along, reserved, the sylex bouncing in the satchel at his hip. The wound on his arm had turned: wire and bright metal shone through the burn. What flesh remained was raw and wet, blackening as it transmuted to fibrous cable.
"I don't think he's going to let us do that," she said, voice going soft.
"Then you know me better than you think you do," said Jace's voice in her head. Melira, who had less experience with telepathy than most of the others, looked surprised. "Really, did you think I wouldn't be paying attention to you debating my future? I'm not risking us all to save my own life, not when we've already lost Vraska. That's more weight than I'm willing to carry."
"Glad to see you're still with us, Jace," said Kaya.
"For now," Jace grimly replied. His mental voice fell silent again, all his energy going to moving onward.
"We honor Nahiri's story, and the ending she wrote for it, by finishing this in victory," said Tyvar, who had been walking close behind with Kaito. "A grand sacrifice demands a grand recounting."
"I just hope she's dead," said Kaito.
Elspeth turned to look at him, stunned. "Explain that," she said.
The lanky Planeswalker shrugged, the tanuki on his shoulder bobbing with the motion. "You have to admit, she's probably the most powerful of us."
"Yes," said Elspeth, slowly.
"She's been traveling for so long I doubt any one of us could take her down," he continued. "Maybe not any two of us. But one on one, that kind of raw power? I'd go down, and so would you. I don't want to face her on the other side of a battlefield. She chose to make sure we could keep moving even when it meant splitting herself off from the one person who might be able to save her. I hope she made that sacrifice all the way and doesn't get caught in the middle and turn against the people she was trying to protect."
"At times it's better to grieve a companion than it is to risk fighting against them," said Tyvar, sounding subdued for once.
It was an unsettling thought, and one Elspeth didn't want to dwell on, even as she knew that it was unavoidable. They hadn't found a body among the debris. Though Nahiri sacrificed herself for them, she might still come back in a changed form, transformed into an inexhaustible enemy.
"Well, that's awful," said Kaya. "Thank you for that."
"This doesn't seem like a good place for pretty illusions." Kaito shrugged. "When we don't see things as they really are, we just wind up getting hurt."
"Uh, what in the hells is that?" asked Kaya, stopping dead in the middle of the pathway and staring, open-mouthed, at a stationary colossus looming up from far below them.
Its head was an inverted teardrop of the white metal, split in the center by a single empty red socket, as if something even larger had come along and plucked out its eye. The form of its body was hunched and elongated, making it all but impossible to draw comparisons between it and any more ordinary body form. It was neither insectile nor reptilian, not humanoid or built along any other predictable plan. All of it was cast in red and white, making it an almost perfect match to the landscape. Before Kaya drew her attention to it, Elspeth had taken it for another monumental building.
"Elesh Norn doesn't like to give up what she thinks belongs to her," said Koth darkly. "She has her favorites—the ones who serve her best or fight her the most fiercely—ossified. Turned to bone and added to her Fair Basilica." He pointed to the statue. "We should still be careful. I've seen structures like this become animated and kill Mirrans who got too close."
So this could be a statue, or it could be a Phyrexian that was going to strike as soon as they moved closer. Its position put it alongside the bridge, a looming threat. Elspeth grimaced, gripping the hilt of her sword.
"Can we move to a safer bridge?" asked Kaito.
"Not if we want to reach Elesh Norn's altar," said Koth. "From there, we can access the Mycosynth Gardens. That's where we get access to the Seedcore, and that's where she's planted her Realmbreaker. That's where we have to go."
"I still fail to understand how she could have planted even a mockery of a World Tree," said Tyvar. The scope of the Fair Basilica stole some of the presence from his normally resonant voice, making him sound reduced.
They were all reduced here. They were lessened in the presence of Phyrexia.
Tyvar continued: "The World Tree grows within the Cosmos itself, linking the realms of Kaldheim. It exists both inside and outside of reality. Even if someone could somehow steal a seed, it should have split this plane in two when it sprouted. The fact that it hasn't is a miracle and a horror."
"We had never seen such a thing before," said Koth. "Most still haven't. Melira is the only spy we have who's made it to the tree and back again."
"Only because they can't infect me," said Melira. "Everyone who'd gone into the gardens with me and survived long enough to make it out again succumbed before we could make it home. Norn's tree is planted below in the Seedcore, where she imprisoned Karn. It's a terrible thing, that tree. Tyvar is right—to look at it, you'd think it would split the plane in two. Its roots drive deep, and its branches reach so high they penetrate into the Mycosynth Gardens." She frowned. "At some point, looking at them is like looking at something underwater. The branches are all funny and distorted, and they're not quite right."
"Omenpaths," said Tyvar. "Somehow, she's generating Omenpaths on the branches of a tree that has no right to be." He scowled, first at nothing, then at the motionless giant looming nearby. "We have to end it."
"That's why we're here," said Kaya. She looked to Koth. "Can we keep going?"
"If it's going to attack, it's going to attack," he said. "Elesh Norn's altar isn't far." He pointed to a building larger than the others, more ornate, stretching toward the sky like a citadel of gleaming white and brutal red, organic and mechanical at once. It was beautiful in its own severe, austere way. It was a monument to a unified Phyrexia.
It hurt Elspeth's eyes if she looked at it for too long. Tightening her grip on her sword, she nodded. "We keep going."
They resumed their walk. They were more together now than they'd been when they started along the bridge. Kaya still kept herself on the other side of the group from Jace, but whatever he'd said to make her give him the sylex, she was no longer outright glowering at him.
The goliath didn't move. They passed under its empty gaze without complication and moved toward the cluster of buildings at the end of the bridge. Kaya remained at the head of their group, phasing through the debris in her path rather than detouring around it, little flecks of purple energy marking her wake.
Koth, Elspeth, and the Mirrans came next, Kaito only a foot or so behind, walking between them and Tyvar, while Jace brought up the rear with the sylex. Tyvar kept glancing back at him, finally saying, "Hurry along, friend Jace. We wouldn't want to lose you now."
"No, I suppose we wouldn't," said Jace, a ribbon of black humor in his tone. "Can't save the Multiverse without me."
The doors of the altar gaped open before them, the terrible maw of an impossible and all-consuming beast. It looked as if it had been frozen between life and death, both stationary architecture and petrified corpse. Looking at it made the flesh on Elspeth's arms crawl. But they kept going, alert and braced for trouble, into the empty foyer.
"I feel very much as if we're walking into a trap right now," said Tyvar, voice hushed less out of respect for the space than out of a very realistic desire not to attract attention. Frozen Phyrexians studded the walls: Elesh Norn's most beloved subjects.
"That's because we probably are," said Kaya. "First we get scattered across the surface, then we find Vraska alive and able to hold on just long enough to scream for Jace? With Ajani on their side, they were able to anticipate our plan of attack. He knows too much about us. This Elesh Norn you keep invoking sounds smart enough to use him against us."
"Smart, yes, all-knowing, no," said Melira. "Her forces are distracted by the rebellion. We have to keep moving."
They pressed deeper into the silent building, passing columns made of motionless bodies, walls that wept ivy-like trails of sinew and boasted row upon row of horrifically human-looking teeth, and a thousand other Phyrexian nightmares. The Fair Basilica knew no end, and they were going to see it all.
The winding stairway from the Fair Basilica down into the Mycosynth Gardens was accessed via a chamber below Elesh Norn's throne. It, too, was unguarded, and the Planeswalkers clustered together as the feeling of moving into a trap grew stronger. Tyvar fingered his piece of Glimmervoid metal, waiting for the moment when he would need to convert his body to the harder, more resilient substance. Conserving his magic for the moment when it would be needed was harder than he would have expected; this place just made him want to stay armored at all times.
They were heroes all, grand allies in the fight against a terrible enemy, and he was glad beyond measure that his story had led him to their side. In the stories, the greater the losses, the greater the victory to follow. But it was hard to remember that now, under the weight of Phyrexia and the future.
At the base of the stair was a platform of shining blue metal—a small slice of the Fair Basilica that extended into the sphere below. The stairway they had used to descend was an enclosed column behind them, stretching back upward to the distant ceiling.
The column's first half, closest to the Fair Basilica, was white metal. As it approached the ground, it gave way to steely blueish gray, becoming oddly textured, almost pebbled. Kaya blinked, raising her hand as if to touch the wall.
"No," said Melira, harshly. Kaya looked at her in surprise, lowering her hand again. Melira relaxed slightly, and explained, "It's mycosynth. This is how Phyrexia took us in the first place. They invaded Mirrodin's heart and sent their infectious spores cascading through everything we were."
Kaya glanced at the wall again, then stepped closer to Koth and his explosives team. "Good to know," she said.
"Forgive me, Melira, but I see no tree," said Tyvar.
The group whipped around to see him clutching his stomach, split skin parting farther as the writhing metallic "veins" beneath fought for dominion over the tissues of his body. He managed to straighten, eyes glowing faintly blue as his voice echoed in their heads.
"Melira said we sought the Seedcore. We must go deeper."
"Deeper," said Koth. "Yes. Elesh Norn forbids access to the Seedcore."
"But there is still a way," said Melira. "Elesh Norn can't pass through solid matter like your friend here." She hooked a thumb at Kaya. "We just have to reach the door. And get through it."
The Planeswalkers looked around the metal-laced landscape, columned in delicate mycosynth, but saw no structures aside from the one to their back.
"Where?" asked Elspeth.
"This way," said Melira, and set out across the rough ground.
The others followed her, careful to avoid the mycosynth pillars, sticking close together to avoid surprises. She led them to a piled-up structure of fungal strands that twisted into a mimicry of entrails, as if some great beast had been gutted here.
Gesturing to the pile, Melira said, "The gateway into the Seedcore. It infects anything it touches. I guess Elesh Norn figures any Mirran strong enough to get this far deserves the honor of compleation. Luckily, I'm immune to phyresis—even the glistening oil doesn't stick to me for long."
As she moved closer to the pile, it heaved, pulsing, before opening into a terrible hole into darkness ringed with waving tendrils. An entrance masquerading as a monster anemone. The tendrils reached out, almost caressing her, and left a sheen of glistening oil behind. She wiped it away as she turned back to the rest.
Koth frowned. "Most of us don't have your specific resistance, Melira. We'll have to blow the ground."
"Why are we messing with it? That loses us any cover we have," said Kaito. "Isn't there another way down?"
"I may have another way," said Tyvar. He held up his piece of Glimmervoid metal. "In the coliseum, Kaito removed Phyrexian oil from my skin before it could work its way inside. If he can clean the oil off quickly enough, I can spread my magic through the lot of us while we pass through to the Seedcore. It will have to be quick. Transmuting this many people is a feat even I won't be able to maintain for long. But it should lend us a measure of protection—enough for Kaito to do his part."
"I can do it, but this stuff resists my telekinesis, and it's going to give me a major headache," said Kaito, stepping into position.
Melira frowned. "I suppose we can try," she said. "How does this work?"
"Just give me a moment," said Tyvar. "None of you will be able to access your own magic while mine lays across you, but that only means we move quickly."
Kaito looked alarmed. "How am I supposed to clean the oil off if my magic is out of reach?"
"The Halo you took before should protect you enough for a few seconds," said Koth. "We can buy you that much."
Kaito nodded, and the group coalesced around Tyvar, who took a deep breath. The smell of green growing things swirled around them, cutting through the oily fungal scent of the mycosynth. Of the group, only Kaya recognized it as the smell of Kaldheim air. Metal began to spread across Tyvar's skin, slowly at first, and then faster and faster, until his body was a Glimmervoid metal sculpture.
The metal continued to spread, covering them all without difficulty. Jace was the last to be fully transformed, the injury on his arm appearing to almost resist the process, as if Phyrexia wasn't willing to yield its hold for even a moment.
When the process was done, Tyvar held up his hand and said, "We move."
They proceeded as a group into the caressing mass of tendrils, which brushed their hardened skins and left streaks of oil behind but didn't attack. Ahead of them was a narrow hall that ended in an open vestibule connected to what looked like a single bridge. They hurried on, not wanting to find the limits of Tyvar's magic before they had cleared the hall.
At the end, they emerged not into the terrible Phyrexian landscape they had all become accustomed to but into something vital and alive, and even more horrific because it was growing. Tyvar looked to Kaito. Kaito nodded, and Tyvar released the spell.
The Glimmervoid metal melted away, leaving them all flesh once more, skins glistening with oil. Kaito rolled his shoulders, and the oil lifted away from their bodies, coalescing into a ball that lobbed itself off the edge of the bridge.
"Thanks," said Kaya. "Hey, Tyvar, good show—Tyvar?"
He didn't respond. He was staring at something in the distance, stepping toward the bridge with eyes wide and cheeks gone pale.
Kaya turned and beheld the Phyrexian World Tree. Realmbreaker.
It was clear that Elesh Norn had cultivated, nurtured, and corrupted it. Its bark was made of the white porcelain metal they'd seen above, and where growth had opened fissures in its surface, vivid, agonized red gleamed through. It wept glistening oil in place of sap, and strange shadows moved along its surface, confusing until Kaya glanced farther up. Long, white oblongs hung in the air near the highest branches of the impossible tree, fading partially into the distorted distance as they reached for the Blind Eternities.
"Invasion ships," said Koth grimly. "They're almost ready."
"This is a perversion of Kaldheim's very soul," said Tyvar. "I knew this was foul, but this
The air was still, eerily so, as if the entire realm was holding its breath. High above, in the distant branches of the reaching tree, a white light bloomed and flashed out, spreading in a horribly symmetrical lattice through the upper reaches of the sky.
"We have to hurry," said Jace.
They ran. The bridge connecting the gardens to the core of New Phyrexia was a narrow line above a bottomless drop; at the other end of the bridge was a dark opening in the tangled roots of the tree. The Planeswalkers were nearly there when the sky flashed again, brighter this time, like a sun exploding in the high reaches.
The cataclysmic explosions filled the air with glistening rainbow distortions, followed by the bright impossibility of the Blind Eternities. Jace moaned. Elspeth stumbled, only saved from going over the bridge's edge by Koth's hand grasping her shoulder and yanking her back.
Kaya only stared upward, expression gone blank. "We're too late," she said.
"Kaya—" said Kaito.
She whipped around to face him. "It was all for nothing," she snapped. "The World Tree has connected to the Multiverse. Elesh Norn can access the Blind Eternities. We failed."
"I refuse to let Kaldheim's heart be the weapon that destroys the Multiverse," said Tyvar. "We can still do our best to undo this."
"Hurry," said Jace, breathless. "We have to hurry." He only made it a few more steps, staggering, before collapsing to the ground.
"Tyvar," said Koth.
Tyvar nodded, and—touching the piece of Glimmervoid metal—rippled to metal as he approached Jace and scooped the other man into his arms. Together, the group continued onward, into the opening, into the dark.
The entryway led into a cavity inside the tree, a great domed room formed from woven roots. Dark passages split off from the chamber, with the large one directly ahead seeming to be the main channel. At the center of the space, atop a low dais, was Karn.
The great silver golem had been broken open, vivisected, and spread across the platform. Most horrifying of all, at the sound of their footsteps, he turned his head and croaked, "You shouldn't have come here. This place isn't for you."
"Karn!" Koth and Elspeth hurried toward him but stopped short of touching him, staring at the damage.
"What have they done?" asked Elspeth.
"Isn't it obvious? They've rejected their Father of Machines." Karn shook his head. It seemed to be all the motion he had left to him. "Hurry. The invasion is still young. You may still be able to save some of the planes. Unless
"We made another," said Elspeth. "We can still end this."
Karn paused, clearly thinking. "You will need to get to the root source and detonate it."
"But—" began Melira, stopping at a sharp glance from Koth.
"I would take the burden from you if I could," said Karn. "It should have been my task all along. You should be free to go to your homes and protect them from what's about to come."
"You can't, though," said Kaya. "You can't even move."
"It's too late for me," said Karn.
"Not just you," said Jace, pushing against Tyvar's chest. The other man put him down, and he approached Karn, arm turned to show the spreading damage from his injury. "It's too late for me, too. Let me take the Multiverse from them."
He hobbled toward the doorway on the other side of the room. After an uncomfortable pause, Tyvar and Kaya followed.
Melira moved to kneel by Karn's head, wiping away the trails of glistening oil and attempting to shift him into a more comfortable position. Koth and the explosives team fanned out around him and began setting charges to free him from his restraints. Elspeth paused in the doorway, neither following the other Planeswalkers nor aiding Karn, and looked back at him.
"I should—they need—but do you want me to stay?" she asked.
"I want to say yes, out of selfishness, but I can't," Karn rasped. "I never thought you would see this plane again. I'm so sorry. I wish you didn't have to die with us."
"It was my choice, Karn."
"You should go with your friends, and then get off this plane. Find a better place to make a final stand."
"No," said Elspeth. "No more running."
Karn sighed, voice apparently exhausted.
"We'll stay here to help shape the charges and aid Karn once he's free," said Koth. "Go."
"I wish I didn't have to."
"It's all right," said Melira, and summoned up a smile. "We made it farther together than I thought we would."
"I'll see you all soon," said Elspeth, and walked through the doorway toward the root source.
The final bridge was long and white and riddled with red.
So many of her friends, dead or lost. Ajani, his mind warped and his body doomed never to die now that he'd been absorbed into Phyrexia. Karn, possibly damaged beyond repair. Her anger was vast, and more agonizing because it was so new. She had lost more than she would ever have believed possible. She felt like her entire being was an old wound that had been sliced open, larger than ever and unhealable.
Elspeth broke into a run.
She caught up to the others halfway across the bridge, approaching a terrible replica of Elesh Norn's altar. This one was made of Realmbreaker's woven roots, rather than ossified Phyrexian bodies, but clearly served the same purpose. It hurt the eye and beguiled the heart at the same time, and Elspeth hated it more than she would have thought possible.
Jace was back on his own feet; he glanced at her as she rejoined the group, giving a small nod of welcome, and said nothing. This place was as alive as the Basilica had been still: the air hummed with an uncanny chorus of discordant voices, layered across each other to form a harmony of inchoate parts, rather than the cacophony it should have been.
"Phyrexians can harmonize?" breathed Kaya.
Static shimmered in the air, which tasted bright with aether. The root ceiling above them gaped as they drew closer to the trunk, a tapestry of finer roots allowing them to look upward at the great bulk of the World Tree itself. It twisted through an open rent into the Blind Eternities, flashes of other planes showing through the haze. The upper branches crackled with the energy Tyvar called "Omenpaths." From this angle, they could see long gangways connecting the oblong white capsules of the invasion vessels to the trees. Phyrexians shuffled along the gangways, readying their assault on the Multiverse.
The smoke the vessels spewed was red. Red as blood, red as contagion.
"How many are there?" asked Kaya." There must be millions of them," said Kaito, in quiet horror.
"They only showed us what they thought we were worth," said Jace. The white ships reached all the way into the highest branches, terrible fruit preparing for the harvest. "They've been down here preparing for the real fight all along."
Behind them on the bridge, they heard footsteps, steady and confident. As a group they turned, all with hands on weapons save for Jace, who clutched the sylex and took a half-step back, away from the coming conflict.
There, walking toward them as calmly as if this were a pleasant afternoon meeting in a park, came Ajani and Tibalt, but not as they had known them. Ajani wore a suit of metallic red and white armor that appeared to have grown out of his body. It echoed the Fair Basilica, marking him as one of Elesh Norn's creatures. He carried a massive double-headed axe, the blades reversed in her honor.
Seeing her mentor draped in the livery of her greatest enemy made bile rise in Elspeth's throat, but not nearly as much as the smile that spread across his face at the sight of her. "Welcome," he called, and his voice was the same as it had always been. "Elspeth, my dear, it's wonderful to see you again. I'm so glad you survived to join me."
"I'm not here to join you," she spat, bringing her sword around in front of herself and gripping it tightly. "I'm here to stop you."
"Why would you want to do that?" he asked, with honest curiosity. "Now we can be together forever, perfect and harmonious. No more differences, no more conflict, no more pain. You will be home. We'll have the peace we've always sought. All will be One."
"Never," Elspeth said.
Beside him, Tibalt was a nightmare of bony plates and protrusions connected by raw, braided sinew, recognizable as himself only through the smirk on the remaining fleshy portion of his face. His tail, always bifurcated at the tip, had split all the way to the base, and now terminated in two wicked stingers that dripped glistening oil onto the root path behind him.
"You were a monster in Kaldheim, and now you finally look the part," said Tyvar, surprisingly calm.
"Little princeling, too stupid to know when to be afraid," sneered Tibalt. "You were always going to end at my hand."
"Kaito, see the others to their destination," said Tyvar, not taking his eyes off Tibalt. "Elspeth and I will handle the vermin."
"Go," snapped the elf, without turning. "These fights were predestined as ours to win. The skalds will sing of the stand we make today, but only if someone survives to tell our story. Go."
"If you say so," said Kaito, and waved a sad, forced goodbye as he turned to offer his arm to the limping Jace, guiding him toward the doorway at the back of the room. Kaya followed with one last regretful look, and the three vanished, leaving Tyvar and Elspeth alone with their transformed enemies.
"Very well then," said Tyvar, almost formally. "Shall we engage?"
Ajani roared as Elspeth leapt toward him, and Tibalt lunged for Tyvar as Glimmervoid metal rippled across the hero's skin, and the battle was joined.
The screaming followed not long after.