The wood was calm, as is typical, lush and green. The sun was high, speckling the forest floor with light from between breaks in the tree branches and through the leaves. As the wind blew, the trees rocked back and forth, and their shadows danced about on the ground among the scattered flecks of light.
It was time to work out, according to my daily routine. The body must be trained, and the mind, too, but not today. I would need every flex my muscles were able to give. I could not waste a bend or swing. I stood in the shadows and the light, warmed and cooled. Beneath my feet I could feel vibrations, impatient and hungry. It was my measure to tip the scales, but not yet. It must wait. The wicked was incoming, and when it arrived we would meet it together.
I was anxious and it bothered me. I drew a deep breath in to calm my nerves, released it slow and steady. It helped a little, but only for a few moments. Then my chest tightened and twisted sickly again and I knew I would live with it until the approaching evil lay upon the ground at my feet. Until he lay bleeding at my feet, or I at his.
The forest knew me. It told me of its experiences. The things it tolerated, I could not claim to have been capable of tolerating. Those who cut at the branches of its great oaks, who slashed through its brush and left its fruit scattered upon the floor. Upon the roots and through the dangling leaves it was sending me another message now. I closed my eyes and let it. Another, you say? Clad in red? The message was quick, panicked. It suggested to me that a man like me was approaching from the east, as I stood waiting for something wicked from the north. A man like me? It could mean many things, or with the particular understanding of the wood, it may mean nothing.
I exerted my influence with a trickle of magic to coax more information. The forest sent its next message at me with such intensity that the muscles in the corners of my eyes twitched.
It burns. It burns! Our leaves are curling and turning black. We are in anguish!
Fire did not bother the forest, not mundane fire. This was magical in nature. It hurt because it singed away the magical essence that gave this land its sentience, its will and influence. It pained me to hear the forest confused and tortured, but I could not move. This was the spot I would raise a wall of nature's fury, and the location could not now be changed. Not in time. The vibrations coming up from the ground increased in intensity, and shook as a tremor. Death was upon us. I could not concern myself with this third party, elemental of fire or no. My focus must be forward. I shook the nerves from my hands and adjusted my dark green vest, tested the charms dangling from my neck for their charges. They were full, thrumming with potential power.
I was as ready as possible. I was still not ready.
In the woods, among the shafts of light and the floating particles of dust therein, a single man's footsteps crunched upon the fallen leaves. His destination was unclear, but the direction to get there unquestionable. A dark one awaited him. Darker than he himself, with his black robe swirling behind him in the wind and black magic dancing about his fingertips, ever ready.
Phinney was his name, and he had been a failure as a regular man, too unmotivated to make something of himself and not wise enough to know that the destiny he had lived was one he had made for himself. No one had forced him to walk that path. He had blamed the entire world for his wasted life. A lesson cruelly taught changed him forever. His power was gained with blood and tears, but he wielded it like he might cradle a child against his breast. The black magic that had made him at once famous and infamous was the lens through which he perceived the entire world, and the tool with which he interacted with it. It was the singular thing upon which he now based his entire identity, and as black as the magic was, he would slit his own throat before surrendering it. He let it run through his veins, play about his fingertips and blacken his eyes. It was his friend, his love, his constant companion. In life he may have excelled in nothing, but this was a different state, a new existence, and he was good at his craft. It was not a power he exerted, it was an instrument he deftly played; a graceful dance; a masterful crafting that created itself as much as he created it.
Phinney was confident, as he well should have been, but he did not possess the fastidiousness I did. He prepared a spell or two, then stepped into battle and improvised. He was a quick thinker and it suited him.
He kept his magical senses tuned to the area around him, but it was hardly necessary. The darkness of the power he felt permeated the area, soaked into his clothes and sucked into his nostrils as he suspired. The magical sparks at his fingers flared up to become a spinning blackness about his hands. He grinned an excited grin. His hair began to whip about, but the forest wind had already ceased. His own power was swirling about him, and as it mounted, the light did shy away, and in the daylight, darkness cloaked him, hiding his eyes, and making the white of his teeth flash. His grin widened, eyes opened fully. Another chance to open the earth and swallow his enemies. Another chance. Soon.
Nikolias the fire mage stomped through the forest. A shrubbery appeared before him. He rolled his eyes in exasperation, conjuring another sphere of flames, "Damn weeds!" he shouted, casting the fire. The shrubbery erupted into flames, burned to black and the wind scattered the ashes.
"I could be sitting at the tavern right now, drinking a beer, but instead I'm going through this forest looking for some evil bastard. I'm gonna scorch his ass for making me waste my time with him."
Nikolias was not a patient man.
Phinney stepped out into the glade wherein I awaited him. His foot crunched onto a dead leaf. I threw my hands forward, outstretched, and a cluster of vines that had been hanging harmlessly a moment before sprung to life and rushed through the air at him like winged serpents.
Phinney raised his own arms. Black energy bubbled around his hands, and the air distorted in front of him. The tips of the vines withered, and as they continued to move at him, they continued to wither until they were too short to reach him. They went limp and hung down listlessly from the trees. There was a calm that momentarily arose. Phinney and I looked at one another. He was smirking. I was not. Then the moment was gone and we were fighting. Roots erupted from the ground in a spire to impale him, but he leaped away and raised his left hand, palm up, fingers curled at the second knuckle.
Before the spot I was standing, a skeletal, humanoid creature burst from the ground as if thrust up from below by a great force. It reached out for my throat with both hands. I took a step back. It followed. I began backpedaling. It stretched forward. I glanced to my right. Phinney was pelting in an arc, feet slapping the ground rapidly. In front of me the undead creature pursued me. I felt my back hit the trunk of a thick tree. Black magic burst around Phinney's raised hand as he rushed toward me.
A boar crashed out of the tree line and smashed into the skeleton. I turned toward the black wizard and green magic flared up in my own hand. I turned to meet Phinney's attack and our hands, filled with magic, met. The grass and leaves from the ground beneath us immediately blasted away as a great wind encircled us, whipped our hair and pants about. My charms hung flapping in the air. Our hands were outstretched toward one another, and our elemental magics pressed together, billowing and spinning like two wheels rolling against one another, each trying to dig in, get more traction, to overpower.
Gritting my teeth with exertion, I plead with my opponent over the raucous whirring of our magics and the roar of the wind, "You don't want to do this, Phinney! There are greater dangers that must be addressed!"
Phinney seemed almost like he was not exerting himself at all, but I could see blood trickling from his left hand, and dark energy filtering up from the ground into his legs.
"I do want to do this," he assured me with a calmness to him that, I admit, frightened me, "You have defeated me too often. The world has battered me and tossed me, broken, at the threshold of death's kingdom." He leaned into his magic attack, and I heard another creature bursting from the ground behind me. Nearby, a tree's leaves flapped wildly.
Phinney continued, still calm, voice louder than it seemed it should have been, "I entered that kingdom, and I left it again with a portion of its power. This power."
I heard another creature rising behind me, then another, to my left.
"Let me show you," Phinney said, grinning a grin that seemed filled with madness, "Let me show you that power!"
The creatures charged me. I came at Phinney with my left arm, now covered in a twisted spire of roots with a pointed tip. He broke away from the magical collision and dove to the right. Immediately I spun, put my hand out into a shaft of sunlight. The warm ray powered my spell and blasted in a beam of heat, turning the creature before me into cinders. I rushed through the opening between the two remaining creatures. One skeletal finger caught my shoulder. My momentum was wrested, but I jerked loose, spun, hit the ground in a backward roll. Blood trickled down my shoulder. I was standing in the shade now, but I still held some of the sun's power in my hand. I pushed it into my veins and the green and gold light disappeared, then burst through the cut. The bleeding stopped, the wound mended as if it never had been.
The ground trembled beneath my feet, eager and impatient. Not yet, I said in my mind. You are my measure, and you must tip the scale in my favor at the correct moment, lest you be wasted.
The skeletal creatures were turning around and advancing. My breathing was steady and calm. I could not waste a single droplet of energy. Sighing a long, calming sigh, I asked the trees to assist me, using just an inkling of power. The trees acquiesced. As if bending in like a canopy, every tree on the outside of the glade bowed forward, vines whipping, roots crashing through the topsoil like a hoe raking across it. The vines wrapped around the creature's heads and waists and legs, and the roots broke the surface of the earth and smashed the shambling skeletons with such force that they shattered asunder.
"You cannot win this time!" Phinney shouted and I turned my gaze rapidly to him. He was standing with arms forward, legs bent and braced against the ground. Before him a black spiral appeared, spinning.
Within it was darkness so black that I saw the light of the forest in its immediate vicinity bending into it, but sucked up. From within that inky blackness something appeared, just a haze, slowly coming forward. It solidified into a shape as it got closer. A clawed hand. The appendage came without the black portal, with an arm as large around as my waist. It slammed onto the ground, palm down. When it lifted again its impression was left deep in the dirt.
"I do not have time or the blood to make the portal bigger at the moment," Phinney exposited, looking gleefully at me, "But I don't need to! Just this arm is enough!"
To punctuate his statement, the arm extended out until I could see the shoulder of whatever beast was attached to it. It swiped at me. I ducked beneath and it returned with a backhand. I grabbed one of the charms on my neck and it grew in size, wrapped around my hand and expanded into a wooden shield, just in time to catch the full brunt of the blow. I flew through the air, but the vines from the trees caught hold of me and I gently landed on my feet.
Grabbing another charm, the stiletto of roots I had wielded before regrew over my arm. I set my shield before me and held my blade to the side.
"Fine, Phinney. I will cease withholding my power-"
Just then, a fireball came blazing through the brush behind the black mage Phinney. It narrowly missed his head as it passed and came on toward me. I took a step to the side and even at a foot away I felt my arm-hair singe. It hit a tree and exploded, taking a bite out of the tree trunk, and scattering droplets of fire that seemed to burn like acid through the foliage and leaves. I looked from the scorched tree to the woods from which the spell had come.
"Thorn bushes are starting to piss me off!" A voice shouted invisibly from somewhere within the brush.
Phinney and I were fairly stunned as we heard crashing around and a slew of disembodied curses from in there. A wizard in red came stumbling out, brushing twigs from his hair. He stopped abruptly when he noticed us.
"Oh, great," he groaned with sarcastic derision, "I woke up for this? You two can take care of this. I'm going home." He turned.
This was a boon, I thought! He could assist us in stopping this evil! I stepped forward, putting out a hand, "Wait! Why don't you join us?"
"Why don't you shut the fuck up?" He retorted for no reason at all. I admit it hurt my feelings a bit.
"I can take on both of you," Phinney said with his usual smugness.
"I could take you out with my eyelashes," Nikolias returned.
"We should be saving our strength for the approaching power."
As if to agree with my words, the ground shook all around us. Then again, and again. Footsteps. Something was coming this way. I touched my charms and my weapon and shield disappeared.
"Phinney, our fight is over." Seeing his incredulous expression, I added, "For now."
Turning to Nikolias, I said, "You need to be here. Your flames will purge this evil, and I will purify it with nature's wrath."
"Then what about me?" Phinney said, and I got the impression he felt left out. The arm he had summoned was tapping the ground impatiently.
"You will be the darkness that the darkness fears," I offered, and he seemed pleased with this. "Now, rest." The ground thumped. "It comes."
A tree, too big to reach your arms even halfway about its circumference, snapped with a deafening peal as of thunder, and it came looming over the glade and crashed down with such weight and size that all three of us stood and watched, stunned.
A creature so tall that it stood above the forest as if wading into a pool of green water to its neck, came upon us. It was dark brown, with three claws on each hand, two legs with three clawed toes, skin like the shell of a beetle. Spiky protrusions jutted from its back, and it had a dozen beedy eyes, which I could see through the clearing, high above us. The forest was quiet, as if waiting to see what it would do. This was the thing I had sensed, that I knew would accost us. It wanted me dead- no, it wanted all of us dead, because we were the planeswalkers who were capable of opposing it. If it eliminated us, then it would be free to terrorize this part of the world unchallenged. We had no choice but to fight.
With an air-splitting roar it raised an arm, as if to bring it down to crush us. Instantly, our attention was focused upon the beast, and we acted. I suppose our personalities and skills influenced those actions. The first one to move was Nikolias. Flames roared up from the ground, lapping at the air about him. Another fireball sparked in his hand and he threw it at the creature. The sphere rolled through the air, sizzling and crackling and exploded against its wrist on the raised hand. I saw no marking but it must have hurt because the creature roared and clutched at the burn.
Phinney must have been building power unbeknownst to me, for the dark portal he had opened suddenly expanded to three times its width, and the demon inside pulled another arm through, dug its nails into the dirt and clawed its way into our realm. It was a twisted monstrosity, with arms twice the length of its body. It stood in a squat, knees protruding unnaturally far. Its face was a mess of teeth and its eyes were thin lines from the center of its dome-like face all the way to the side of its head.
Heedless of the danger, or perhaps spurred by it, the demon rushed toward the colossus. It leaped, slashing with both claws at its knees. I saw blood splash through the air and cuts open deep. The colossus reached down and grabbed the demon, which at first arched its back in pain as the fist tightened around its body, but then it began slashing at the fingers holding it. With a mighty squeeze, then demon splattered into black blood that oozed down the massive hand and splashed onto the ground in globules.
As this was happening, Nikolias was hurling fireball after fireball into the monster's stomach and legs and face, and although each one shook the beast, it yet did not fall, nor did it seem to be damaged significantly.
"Well," Nikolias said, throwing his hands up in irritation, "I guess it's just invincible then."
Phinney, meanwhile, was staring up in disbelief, "My- my demon! I had to do things I am not proud of to get him."
I was suddenly uncomfortable because it looked like he was going to cry.
"Stand back," I called to them, and turned to face the monstrosity. My eyes became covered in a green glaze of energy as I focused my will. The ground began to quake. My measure was now to tip the scales in our favor. Looming over us, the monster crouched and drove itself forward with a massive toeing off.
Behind me, the ground exploded. Up, and up, and up came a cylindrical beast, rows of teeth lining a mouth that looked like a hellish cave, always open. A Core Snake, whose power I had been building for days.
It rose out of the ground like a geyser, curled forward and rushed at the monster. They clashed together with a deafening peal. Calamity ensued. They began to wrestle, arms and claws swinging, bodies writhing about. The Core Snake wrapped around the monster's torso and squeezed, while its cavernous maw thrust toward the monster's head, trying to get those teeth around it. The monster held it back with one hand and dark purple energy built at its eyes.
"Nikolias! Phinney!" I shouted above the sounds of thrashing and roaring, "We must not allow this wicked beast to prevail! We must attack now!"
Another ten skeletons rose from the ground and started toward the monster, while Nikolias prepared some spell, darting off into the woods presumably to come up behind it.
I could only focus to maintain control over the Core Snake.
The energy building around the monster's eyes diminished to pinpoints. It was going to attack and if it did, my summoned beast was going to be finished, and possibly with us. The pinpoints of dark purple energy shimmered, then blasted out like water from a pipe, but it jerked at the last moment and the beam of energy streaked into the sky. The monster turned furiously, grabbing at its own back. I saw a long, vertical line of molten red making a deep gash along its spine. Weaving between its legs, Nikolias came running with a flaming sword in his hand. My Core Snake threw its weight back. The monster stumbled, then toppled and came crashing to the ground in my direction. I ran sideways to escape it. It hit the ground with a thunderous shaking of the earth, but it did not come to rest. It was immediately rolling, the Core Snake holding onto it, saliva splashing from its teeth it so dearly wished to wrap around its prey. They thrashed about, crushing trees like blades of grass.
I then noticed Phinney hovering above on energy emitting from his legs like black flames rushing up and disappearing. His hands were held out, both red with blood, and it dripped down upon the fighting beasts. The blood was unnatural. It poured and poured from his hands as if drawing from some wellspring, until both snake and wicked monster had lines of blood clearly visible across their bodies.
Phinney laughed aloud, wild and gleefully, "I will soon be the ultimate power!" he cried, "I will be in control of two of the most powerful creature on this planet!"
Black energy swirled about him, roared up like a black inferno, and became so thick I could barely even see him. Was he really trying to control these monstrosities? It was madness! I knew that I must try to convince him to reconsider.
"Phinney, listen! You cannot control these creatures, not forcibly, and especially not that wicked incarnation of evil. It will snatch control from your hands and bludgeon you with it."
It was no use. I doubted if he could hear me with the fighting and flames.
From the blood on the beasts, black flames suddenly erupted like flames on gasoline. Both creatures roared in fury and pain, then in the next moment, all movement had ceased. The monster's arms went limp, and the Core Snake collapsed, its body smashing into the ground and remaining there, unmoving.
All was calm.
I was confused. "Wait, what?"
Nikolias looked about, then directed his attention at me, "Didn't he say something about controlling them?"
"I thought so."
Phinney, now on the ground, fell to his knees, "Aw, no! I used the wrong spell! That was death's embrace, not Vestige Intake!"
"What?" I said dumbly.
Nikolias glared at him, "You're not- you do not mean that you got the wrong spell because they-"
"They are phonetically similar," I said, catching on, "That's just silly."
"Well," Nikolias said, "if you think about it, in the moment anyone could have made that mistake."
Phinney had become prostrate, arms curled around the top of his head. His body shook with sobs.
"Ultimate power," he lamented, "Ultimate power and I threw it all away because of a mistake I hate myself!"