A smile creased Elspeth’s face as she strode through the underworld.

The route from her cave to Pavios and Thanasis’s cavern should have been fairly short, but a long chasm split the ground between them and forced her to sidetrack for almost a mile. Someday she’d have to look into making enough rope to throw a bridge across the empty chasm; though she had no idea if that would be possible without convincing hundreds of spirits to shave themselves bald.

She was still chuckling at that image when a scream cut through the miasma. That in itself wasn’t so uncommon. Shrieks and wails were the constant backdrop of the underworld, but their cries were always born of despair and hopelessness. Whoever had screamed was unmistakably in terrible pain, and they were close.

Elspeth broke into a sprint, her empty greaves bouncing on their chain as she ran along the crevasse. The next scream came out of the fog on her right, far off the path she was familiar with. With only a few moments to fix the landmarks in her mind Elspeth whirled and ran into the swirling mists.

Details flashed by in the darkness. A bloodstained chunk of rock, a trio of dead trees, a single burning torch thrust into the ground. Elspeth tried frantically to remember them as she ran, navigating by sound alone.

A huge form loomed out of the darkness, wings arched overhead and lines of red fire burning across its body in place of the gold bands she’d learned to expect from the demons of Theros. She skidded to a stop as the demon turned to face her. He held a man off the ground with one hand. His screams must have alerted her, though now his face was turning purple as he slapped at the claws clamped around his throat.

A snarl curled the demon’s lips. “I’m busy.” He flicked the fingers of his free hand at her and purple fire lashed over Elspeth.

She collapsed to the ground in a haze of pain. It took a few seconds for her to piece together what had happened. Deep gashes covered her body and she could feel her guts oozing out through the cuts on her stomach. She tried to move, to speak, to do anything. But all she could get out of her arms was a fitful twitch. When she screamed a fine mist of blood sprayed out of her mouth in place of sound.

Through the haze of pain Elspeth began to make out what he was saying. “. . . see what happens when someone tries to help you?”

A muffled scream cut through the darkness.

“I’m not in a hurry. We’ll stay here until you break. It’s just a matter of finding your limits.”

There was more, but Elspeth blocked it out and focused on her hand. She had some feeling again and was able to tighten her fingers around her blackwood staff. With legs that trembled and shook she tried to stand, only for her feet to give out under her and send her crashing to the ground once more.

Elspeth planted the butt of her staff on the ground and dragged herself to her feet. Wisps of black mist rose from her wounds as they closed; leaving only the horizontal gash that had claimed her life. She hefted her staff and called on the sun-dappled plains of Theros above. For a heart-stopping moment nothing happened, then a blade of pure white light blazed to life at the end of her staff.

Elspeth lunged forward, aiming to split the demon’s skull from behind and end the fight in one blow. He jerked his head to the side at the last moment and her blade merely laid open his cheek. Flames licked out from the wound.

“How many heroes does this plane have?” The demon drew his sword one-handed, still holding the limp man by the throat. “It’s infested with them.”

A lump of pure dread settled into Elspeth’s gut. The demon was a planeswalker. She spat a glob of blood onto the ground and tightened her grip on the spear. “You can’t kill the dead.”

“Perhaps not.” He lunged midword, nearly skewering Elspeth. The blade sliced a flap of skin from her arm instead.  “Dismemberment will do.”

Elspeth’s return thrust was weak, but she fought back to parity as her arm healed. It soon became clear that she was outmatched, however. Even one-handed the demon kept up with her best strikes and struck back with terrifying power. His sword swung in wide, slashing arcs that forced her to back out of his reach and prod at him from a distance or else lose an arm.

Even so, she had one advantage. While her own wounds healed the demon bled a mix of flames and black ichor from a handful of injuries. As the fight dragged on he began to slow.

“How long can you fight?” she taunted.

“Longer than you.” The light from her spearhead flickered as he batted it aside with a flick of his blade. “We both know you’re running out of mana.” He bared his fangs in a cruel smile and stepped back, the man held between them as a shield.

Elspeth tried to circle around, but the demon just laughed and hopped out of her reach with a flap of his wings.  They repeated the pattern several times like a dance. All the while Elspeth felt her connection to Theros eroding. The glowing spearhead flickered one last time and vanished.

The demon roared and charged. His sudden aggression overwhelmed Elspeth and knocked her to the ground. She got her staff up in time to block the first blow, but the raw force smashed her back into the unyielding stone and made her arms go numb. Again and again the demon struck, his sword rising and falling with the power and inevitability of Purphoros’s hammer. She blocked what she could, but some blows slipped through. One of her lungs collapsed. Half her vision went dark in a fountain of pain and ruined nerves. Finally the demon kicked the staff from her numb hands and brought his blade down in a two-handed chop.

The demon rose, breathing heavily with exertion. “You’re beaten. Stay down.” He picked up her severed legs and hurled them into the mist.

“Now you.” He walked out of Elspeth’s vision, and she heard a frightened yelp. “Let’s continue.”

“You . . .” a sudden gust of wind sucked Elspeth’s hair to the side.  The demon roared, though with rage or pain Elspeth couldn’t say. For a long time there was silence, then she heard a quiet voice. “You shouldn’t have let me touch your bracer. Idiot.”

The man limped into Elspeth’s view, and for the first time she got a good look at him. He was tall, with a wild mop of brown hair and a full beard. It was impossible to say what color his clothes had once been, but they’d obviously belonged to someone wealthy. He stooped to pick something off the ground with a hand that was stained crimson to the elbow. What had he done to the demon?

Elspeth coughed, and the spirit’s head snapped around to look at her. His throat was already bruised purple and blood dribbled from a small cut on his temple, but it was his eyes that captured Elspeth’s attention.  Despite the laugh lines that surrounded them his eyes were haunted, the brown orbs devoid of hope and joy. Something seemed off, but it took her a minute to realize his blood was red instead of black.

“You . . .” Elspeth frowned, trying to make sense of what she saw. “You’re not dead.”

“Sure hope I’m not.” The ghost of a smile touched his lips. “Dack Fayden, greatest thief in the multiverse.”

Another planeswalker? What were the odds of that? Probably the same as being on three planes as world-ending calamities rocked them. Elspeth shook her head. One thing at a time. “Well mister Fayden, can you see where the rest of me got to? Your demon threw it over there somewhere.”

“Oh, my demon now is he?” Dack walked out of her sight and returned with the lower half of her body slung over his shoulder. “What do you want me to do with this?”

“Line it up with the rest of my body.” Elspeth laid flat and waited until she felt something press against the searing void where her stomach used to be. It was strange to look down and see her legs but be unable to feel or move them.

“You sure you’re good there?”

“Fine.” She inched to the side with her elbows until she was sure things were lined up correctly. Black mist began to rise from the wound. “You don’t realize how slimy your guts are until someone shoves them back into you.”

Dack turned and retched.

Elspeth grimaced as feeling began to return to her lost limbs. “So, how did you wind up in the underworld without dying?”

“Oh, I jumped into a portal.” He shrugged. “I had my reasons.”

“You’re a strange man, Dack.”

He ran his red hand through his hair. “And you’re the strangest ghost I’ve ever met. Most spirits can’t shut up about getting revenge on the bastard that killed them, or how much interest you owe them on that stupid loan or . . .” His voice trailed off quietly, and Elspeth saw the despair return to his eyes.

“Their loss.” She flexed her legs and smiled when they moved. “Death is wasted on the dead.”

That got a surprised chuckle out of him.

Elspeth stood and looked around. Three large bloodstains darkened the stones around them, one of which burned with demonic fire. Wherever he had flown off to, there was no sign of him now. Satisfied they were safe, Elspeth stooped to retrieve her staff and greaves. Several deep nicks marred the center of her staff. With a heavy sigh she slung the chain around her neck.

“What are you going to do, Dack?”

He gave a despondent half-shrug. “Keep looking for Erebos I guess. That’s why I’m down here in the first place. I don’t suppose you’d be able to thank me for my daring rescue by bringing me to him?”

She shook her head.

“Great.” His shoulders slumped. “On to plan . . . who cares anymore.” The red-handed planeswalker turned, seemed to pick a direction at random and started walking.

“Do you even know where you’re going?”

“Does it matter?” his voice broke, and she barely caught his next words. “It’s all the same down here.”

Elspeth sighed. “Come with me.”

To her surprise he turned around and came back without question. He seemed not to care how long it took her to get her bearings and guess what direction the chasm lay in. When she set off he shuffled listlessly along behind her.

To try to keep him focused Elspeth chatted about random things as they picked their way through the mists. The friends she’d made in the underworld, her adventures on Theros. He perked up briefly when she mentioned other planes, but they soon discovered that Theros was the only world they had in common.

“How have you never been to Ravnica? Everyone’s been there at some point. You know what? When we get out of here I’m taking you to Milena’s. You might have to sell a hefty chunk of your soul to afford the prices, but their wine selection alone is worth dying for.”

“I’m already dead, remember?” Elspeth spread her arms to encompass the cold stone and endless fog around them. “This is my world now. Even if I could leave, I’m happy here.”

“Here?” the disbelief was clear in his voice. “We’re seeing the same place, right? Damp, cold, full of magical despair and murderous demons with bad breath.”

“All I’ve ever wanted was a home.” She ran her fingers along the bark of a dead tree.  It crumbled beneath her touch, baring the pale wood beneath. “I found one here.”

Dack didn’t reply, but it was clear she’d made him uncomfortable.

Before she could think of what to say a roar of laughter boomed out of the mist. “Sounds like Vinack is settling in well.”

“Wait, wait.” Dack grabbed her shoulder and pulled them both to a stop. “Hold on Elspeth. You actually knew where we were going?”

“Of course.”

“That’s . . .” Dack’s hand slid limply from her shoulder. “How? I’ve been lost and wandering down here for ages. No one knew how to navigate the mists.”

“There is no secret.” Elspeth raised her staff and pounded it on the stone to announce their presence. The laughter inside died down and she heard the scrape of chairs on stone as the people inside rose. She lowered her voice and continued. “You can’t see farther than ten, twenty feet at a time down here. I used everything from weird-looking rocks to cracks in the ground to piece together a map from hundreds of insignificant details.”

Dack’s face fell.

Before she could reach out to comfort him, Pavios emerged from the cave with a torch held over his head. “Back so soon Elspeth? I was worried you’d be gone for ages again.” He took in her ripped and bloodied clothes and paled.

“We had some demon trouble, nothing too serious.” Elspeth pulled the young man into a hug. “It’s good to see you Pavios.”

“Oh stop.” He shoved her away playfully and turned his earnest smile on Dack. “Come in, come in. Elspeth hasn’t brought us boring company yet.”

The two planeswalkers followed Pavios into the small opening. Pavios had to duck several times to avoid cracking his head on the stone. The passage twisted sharply to the side, then she heard Dack suck in a startled breath.

The passage opened up into a cave that still surprised Elspeth with how big it was. In the land of the living the space would have been equivalent to a modest farmer’s house, but here it was an almost unimaginable luxury.

They even had a rough set of chairs and a three-legged table that Thanasis had made from the branches of a dead tree. Every time Elspeth had complimented him on his craftsmanship the young blacksmith just shook his head and muttered about how shoddy nails made out of gold were.

There was no hint of that self-conscious awkwardness about the lanky young man now. He sat across the table from Vinack, chuckling along with the headless spirit as they reset the tiles for another game of Erebos’s domain. Dack raised an eyebrow at the sight of Vinack’s gruesome injury, then shook his head and slouched against the wall.

“He got you again, huh?” Pavios ruffled Thanasis’s hair. “Elspeth brought another friend.”

“I think it’s time for you to put Vinack in his place love.” Thanasis rose from his chair with a wince.

“You’re just sore you traded your red tile for two yellows” The chair creaked in protest as the burly man shifted his attention to Elspeth and whistled. “What happened to you lot?”

“Just a demon.” Elspeth leaned her staff against the wall. “Nothing too serious.”

“A demon!” Thanasis leapt to his feet, his eyes shining. “You have all the fun. What happened? How’d you beat him? You gotta tell me everything.”

“Fun?” She couldn’t help but smile at his enthusiasm. “I got disemboweled twice. Dack was the one that chased him off.”

“Really?” Thanasis scrunched up his nose. “He doesn’t look like much.”

“I cheated.” Dack waved his hand and the air around him shimmered with motes of blue light.

Thanasis slumped, but Pavios perked up. “You still have magic? Where did you learn? What’s your specialty?”

“That’s—” Dack blinked. “What do you mean still?”

Elspeth rested a hand on Pavios’s shoulder. “Magic doesn’t last long down here. The more you use, the faster it erodes. You saw it happen when I was fighting the demon.”

Dack’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “Your spear.”

She nodded.

A foul hissing sound filled the cavern as black mist consumed the blue lights, leaving only the flickering light of a few torches. “Great. Just great.” Dack rubbed his eyes with one hand. “I don’t have time for this, I need to find Erebos.”

“That’s why we’re here.” Elspeth kept her voice as soothing as she could.

Pavios and Thanasis exchanged a glance so thick with meaning Elspeth would have sworn an entire conversation had passed between them. Thanasis cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually we might be able to help with that.”

Dack blinked at the young warrior, his mouth slightly open. Eventually he shook his head and said, “You’re joking.”

“Do I looking like I’m kidding?” Thanasis crossed his arms. “He’s at the river.”

“He is?” Elspeth couldn’t stop the surprised words. “Since when?”

“Recently.” It was Pavios who answered. “Rumor has it Erebos has called on all the fallen soldiers in his realm to gather at the river. No one can quite agree on the why of it all, but he’s calling together an army, an army of the dead.” He bit his lip. “We were actually thinking of going ourselves to enlist. We . . . owe Erebos everything.”

Elspeth sucked in a breath, her head spinning. An army of the dead? For what? There’s nothing down here, nothing worth going to war over.

“That’s great!” A real smile spread across Dack’s face for the first time. “Elspeth can take us to the river, you two can join the ghost army or whatever, and I can talk to Erebos. When can we leave?”

“We were just waiting for Elspeth to get back,” Thanasis said. “So now if you want.”

Dack immediately turned and strode towards the exit but Elspeth caught him by the shoulder.

“Are you crazy?” He tried to shake her off. “We have to go now.”

“You’re exhausted,” Elspeth said. “If this rumor is true, if Erebos is at the river, if he’s really gathering an army, then he’ll still be there after you sleep.”

“I sacrificed everything for this!” Dack shouted, and his voice cracked with a hysterical edge. “People are dying every second that I waste down here. I chose this path, I can’t stop now!”

Vinack let out a bark of harsh laughter. “You came here by choice? What’s so Gods’-rotted important you’d come here afore your time?”

“They called it the sleep plague.” The fire in Dack’s eyes died. “It swept across Meletis. Just nightmares at first, but then people stopped being able to sleep at all. The plague hit spellcasters differently. They’d sleepwalk in the grip of terrible nightmares. Even cast spells in their sleep. The results? Well, they weren’t pretty, I’ll say that much.”

“So you came to the underworld.” Elspeth tried to keep the disbelief from her voice. “To stop a plague.”

“It sounds stupid, doesn’t it?” He chuckled ruefully. “Eventually we figured out that the plague was the work of a powerful mage named Ashiok. They aimed to plunge the city into an endless nightmare.”

Pavios caught Elspeth’s eye, his own brown orbs full of concern. Elspeth opened her mouth to speak, but the words poured from Dack like they’d been loosed from a dam.

“Ashiok was too strong. We couldn’t even figure out where they were and things were spiraling out of control so fast. We figured Erebos would want to stop someone from ending the cycle of life and death, so, well. Here I am.”

Silence hung in the air.

“Dack,” Elspeth said finally. “The sleep plague’s over.”

“I, what?” Dack frowned.

“It’s over.” Elspeth met his eyes. “I’ve spoken with people who lived to see the cure spread through the three poleis.”

His face twisted with hurt and confusion. “How? When?”

“I don’t know how they cured it, and it’s hard to say how long ago that was. A month or two? Maybe more.”

Whatever pride or purpose Dack had been clinging to shattered. He seemed to crumple in on himself. It was like Elspeth was looking at a shell of a man.

“Dack.” She shook her head and started again. “Do you know how to get back to the surface?”

Dack nodded glumly. He didn’t seem up to speaking yet. Gradually the planeswalker wandered over to the darkest corner of the cavern and collapsed into the boys’ bed.

Elspeth watched him with no small amount of concern, but it wasn’t her place to intrude. Before long Vinack had egged Pavios into a match of Erebos’s domain and Thanasis had taken a seat beside his lover, slowly shaving down a block of gold that looked like it would eventually become a decorative stand for the board.

She collected her staff and went outside. After the packed quarters and smoke-filled air of the cave, the damp chill of the underworld was oddly refreshing. There was a flat stone a short way from the entrance that made for a comfortable enough seat; but after shifting around a few times Elspeth found herself lying on her back, staring up into the endless expanse of mist overhead. It was easy to see patterns in the darkness, as if the sky itself here was a twisted parody of the constellations of Nyx.

Thoughts chased each other around Elspeth’s head. The news of Erebos gathering an army was troubling. She trusted the God of the Dead because he promised nothing and asked for nothing in return, but it seemed that even that had changed.  Pavios’s words had struck a chord. She owed Erebos for the peace she’d found in the afterlife, but how far did that debt go? Could she repay a debt of peace by going to war? More disturbingly, could she live with herself if she let others face those horrors for her? The castles of Bant had long since fallen. Despite that, even with her magic failing, Elspeth was still a knight. She had a duty here. She just wished she knew what it was.

Elspeth was still wrestling with those questions when Pavios joined her. She heard his footsteps crunch on the loose gravel as he approached, but once he walked into view the young mage took a seat next to her. For a time they simply sat, staring off into the darkness in silence.

“Pavios.” Elspeth rolled the staff between her hands. “Why do you want to join Erebos’s army?”

“It’s like I said, isn’t it?” The young man gave a small half-shrug. “He kept us together in death. That’s more than I could have ever hoped for. It’s only fair that we try to repay him somehow.”

“That’s not a bad reason. But it’s not your only one.”

Pavios sighed. “It’s . . . Thanasis always wanted to be one of the Lukos, a wolf of Akros. Even when his father forbade it he spent his spare time training in the hope of being accepted when he turned eighteen. And then we died. He gave up his dream, his life, everything to be with me. This will probably be the only chance he ever gets to be a hero.”

“Heroes aren’t made on the battlefield.”

“I had a dream too, Elspeth.” Pavios’s voice was so soft she could barely hear him. “I wanted so badly to be a great mage, to be acknowledged by the gods and bend the elements to my will. Maybe even add to the libraries of Meletis. But that can’t happen now. I won’t begrudge Thanasis his dream just because mine’s impossible. And I refuse to let that dream separate us.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” Elspeth sighed. “You’ve never been to war Pavios. You don’t know the horrors of battle. What it’s like to wade through your comrade’s blood to gut the foe that killed them. That kind of carnage can’t be unseen, and it leaves a stain that never washes off.”

“All the more reason I won’t let him go alone.” Pavios rose. “Dack’s up, by the way. It sounds like his way out of the underworld is at the river. I know you don’t approve of this, but would you be willing to go at least that far with us? It would mean a lot to both of us.”

They would go with or without her, she realized as she rose and dusted off her tunic. “Of course Pavios. I’d be honored to.”

Their departure took an unexpected turn when Vinack laughed off the idea of going with them. When she pressed him the headless man scratched at the gory stump of his neck. “I gave up being a hero when I let a minotaur cave my skull in. That’s a young man’s game and I’ve got no use for glory. Figure I’ll find myself a cave somewhere close and settle down. Maybe even start carrying sand around in my shoes like a madwoman.”

“Best of luck to you.” She went to clasp arms with him and grunted when the broad man pulled her into a spine-cracking hug. He clapped the other three on the shoulders before turning and walking off into the mist.

The trip to the river was somber without the boisterous mercenary. Pavios walked in the back with Dack, slowly coaxing him out of his shell with questions about his techniques. Before long he had the planeswalker embroiled in a debate over some technical application of cryomancy, though the haunted look never quite left Dack’s eyes. Thanasis marched a few steps behind Elspeth, a shield of grey deadwood and a spear that was little more than a sharpened branch held as proudly as she’d once borne Heliod’s own spear. Such was the curse of those who died weaponless.

For her own part Elspeth spared only a rare glance back at her companions. Her attention was fixed on the route. It had been long enough since she visited the river that she didn’t fully trust her memory of the twisting path that led there.

Her concerns were unfounded, for after several hours the clinging darkness abated. Though the thinning mist Elspeth caught a glimpse of cerulean water and countless spirits.

“I can see!” the relief in Dack’s voice was unmistakable.

“The mist is thinnest at the river,” Elspeth said. “This is the farthest anyone can see in all the underworld.” She didn’t say the rest of what was on her mind. The riverbank had always been the most crowded part of the afterlife, but even in her previous visits it had never been this crowded. Rumor or no, warriors from across Theros’s past had answered Erebos’s call. Phalanx upon phalanx of mangled soldiers stood at attention before the waters, their shields rent and weapons shattered. Thousands of the dead filled the beach as far as the mist allowed her to see.

Thanasis and Pavios stared at the gathered soldiers with their mouths open, while Vinack let out a low whistle. Only Dack seemed unfazed, which made sense after what he’d told her of Ravnica.

“We’re at the river,” She said to Dack. “What now?”

“I need to meet someone.” He pointed to a spur of rock that rose from the sand like an enormous fang, many times taller than the ghostly warriors that surrounded it. “Up there would be perfect.”

“Simple enough,” Elspeth knelt and hugged Pavios and Thanasis in turn. “Be safe. I’ll come find you after I’m done with Dack.”

Pavios nodded and Thanasis slammed the butt of his spear against the ground in a salute. She smiled as the pair left, weaving their way between the phalanxes of the dead.

Elspeth had expected that she’d have to haul Dack up the rocky spur, but he produced a grapple from his pack. He caught the top lip of the spur on the first throw and scampered up as if it was level ground, a grin breaking through his wild beard.  For the first time Elspeth saw him in his element, as he must have been before losing himself.

By the time she reached the top he was already marking out an arcane circle with a lump of chalk. She looked out over the assembled warriors like a sea of humanity. And of monstrosities too, she noticed. Spirits of minotaurs and centaurs, stood shoulder to shoulder with humans. It was a humbling reminder. In the end, everyone belonged to the God of the Dead.

“Almost got it.” A small light flashed from the circle and Dack rose, a faint smile on his face. “There.”

“You know that won’t last long enough to summon anything?” Black mist was already consuming the chalk’s faint glow.

“Just sending a message, shouldn’t be too long.” Dack sat and dangled his feet over the edge of the rock, looking expectantly into the darkness above. “What do you think Erebos needs an army for?”

“I don’t know,” Elspeth said. “But the answer scares me. It feels like we’re here to repel an invasion.” Had Phyrexia followed her even here?

“Or to launch one yourselves,” Dack said. “All you’re missing is something to cross the river.”

As they spoke a star shot overhead. At first it was just a speck in the dark, but as it descended Elspeth saw there was a man in the heart of the white light, a gnarled and twisted staff in his hand. He swooped down and came to a halt before the two planeswalkers, his feet floating in midair. Now that he was closer Elspeth saw that his eyes were orbs of pure alabaster, lending an unearthly beauty to his youthful features.

“Dack.” The man’s voice rang with a musical undercurrent. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Just ash and disappointment,” Dack said. “Someone beat me to the punch.”

“I did warn you.”

“Spare me the ‘I told you so’ Ravos. I’m not in the mood.”

“If you insist.” The man, Ravos, extended his hand. “You have lingered with the dead long enough. It is time you walked under the sun once more Dack.”

“What are you?” The words slipped out before Elspeth could stop them. She shrank back as the full weight of his alabaster gaze turned on her.

“Some call me a servant of the Ferrymaster. I guide the souls that escape notice by the gods. Sometimes I help fools like this one who stray where they shouldn’t.” He drifted closer and whispered in her ear. “I could return you to life Elspeth.”

“But . . .” She rocked back in surprise. It took her a few tries to find her voice again. “I died. I surrendered my life to Erebos. Heliod stabbed me through the heart just to make sure I would stay down. My death wasn’t a mistake, there’s no reason I should live.”

“There is no fairness in death. Why would there be any in resurrection?”

Elspeth couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She’d resigned herself to her fate so long ago. For Ravos to simply offer to undo her death? She’d never dreamed such a thing would ever be an option, let alone that the offer would com hand-delivered from a priest of Athreos. What made her so special? She didn’t deserve this. It wasn’t right.

That last thought stuck with her. This wasn’t how things were supposed to work. Dead was dead. Period. The gods couldn’t know what Ravos was doing or else one of them would have put a stop to it.

“Erebos!” She turned her face to the sky and cried out with all her might. “Erebos hear me! There’s a traitor in the rivermen!”

Ravos recoiled from her as if he’d been burned. “We need to go Dack. Now.”

White light blazed from the end of Elspeth’s staff. She raised the spear to strike at Ravos but froze when she realized striking down the traitorous priest would rob Dack of his only path back to Theros.

The sky darkened. That should have been impossible in the land of endless night, but somehow it wasn’t. All across the beach torches flickered and went out. The mist closed in, shrinking the horizons. Everywhere Elspeth could see, dead soldiers broke ranks in confusion. Some screamed, some cheered, and hundreds took up war chants from every corner of Theros.

A titanic form descended out of the mists. Darkness billowed around it like a cloak made from the blackest night. Elspeth cried out, but her voice was buried in the cacophony of the dead. Erebos glided overhead without slowing and drifted to a halt above the river. A whip of shadow unfurled from his cloak and cracked so loudly it echoed from the stone.

The God of the Dead had arrived.

Pavios stood at what he hoped was attention and tried not to stare at the massive brute of a man on his left. The pair stood surrounded by grizzled veterans in full armor, most of them sporting horrific injuries that spoke to death in battle. They were real heroes. His hand moved up to cover the hole through his heart. He didn’t even have a real weapon. He’d given the short sword that had killed both of them to Thanasis. How many of the spirits around him had gotten here through suicide? Probably none. They didn’t belong here.

“Than—” Pavios stopped himself.

“What is it?” Thanasis said.

“Nothing.” Pavios squared his meager shoulders. Thanasis wanted to be here. That was all that mattered.

Everything went dark. Spirits cried out in sudden confusion. He could barely see the front rank of their phalanx. It took Pavios a moment to realize that the mist had rolled in.

It’s never like this at the river. What’s . . .

Erebos appeared overhead. Formed from utter blackness he towered over the gathered warriors. It was like looking through a hole in the world and seeing nothing on the other side. The brutish warrior next to Pavios raised his maul and bellowed a furious war cry which was taken up by the soldiers around them. Spears banged against shields, and the clatter slowly resolved into a metallic drumbeat.

“The time has come.” Erebos’s voice boomed through the cavern. “An enemy like no other threatens Theros. And the dead shall rise to meet it.”

The whip cracked overhead.

“March. March to glory”

A cheer rose from the army. Countless voices echoed through the darkness and blended into a single roar. The phalanx stepped forward as one, then broke into a march and then a steady jog. Armor jangled all around them, adding to the deafening cacophony of grunts and thudding feet. Someone bumped into Pavios and he only stayed on his feet because Thanasis grabbed his arm.

Suddenly the phalanx crashed into the ranks ahead. The tightly packed lines broke in confusion and angry voices rang out as the two self-appointed captains tried to sort out the mess. Pavios grabbed Thanasis’s hand. His lover squeezed back, a small reassurance in the darkness.

The whip cracked again. “Forward. Let none stand in your path.”

The soldiers around them put their shoulders down and shoved the spirits in front of them, trying to force their way past the stalled ranks ahead. Someone shoved Pavios from behind and then it was push or be trampled. Bodies pressed in from all sides, forcing him one way and then another, but always closer to where Erebos hung in the air. Pavios’s only thought was to cling to Thanasis with all his might. They were packed so tightly he could barely breathe, and still Erebos commanded them to march forward.

Screams cut through the chanting and war cries. The crack of Erebos’s whip drowned them out momentarily, then they returned with a renewed terror. A chill crept up Pavios’s spine. What enemies could make the greatest heroes of Theros’s past cry out in such terror? Then a gap in the line opened before them, and his disorientated panic snapped into desperate clarity.

The river was less than a stone’s throw away; its waters were peaceful no more. They thrashed and boiled as hundreds, thousands of spirits fought to escape the river. Those still on the shoreline fought with all their might to claw further up the beach, to hold back the tide of their fellow soldiers pressing forward, to survive.


“Around!” Pavios put his mouth to Thanasis’s ear and shouted over the clamor. “We need to turn around!”

Thanasis looked at the god towering above them, then turned without a word and threw his shoulder into the gut of a Meletian soldier. The press towards the river abated momentarily, then returned with renewed force as the ranks behind shoved the staggered spirit before them.

Pavios dug his feet in as the spirits around him saw what awaited them and joined in a concerted push back against the tide of bodies. They pushed and struggled as one, and as one they slid backwards. The hands at Pavios’s back grew frantic, clawing at his skin as if they were trying to climb over him. Then they fell away, and now he was the one bracing those who struggled against the onrush of soldiers. He didn’t dare look back to see what had happened to them, but he could imagine. The waters that robbed the Returned of their identity. To be forced into them unwillingly was the worst fate he could imagine. And it was about to be his.

Pavios strained with all the might in his meager frame, but it wasn’t enough. He could have been a Cyclops and his strength wouldn’t have been enough to escape this nightmare. His sandaled foot slid back into the waters. A scream tore from his lips as the water began to leech away his strength and memories.

Then someone grabbed him around the waist and lifted him bodily out of the water. Pavios looked down and saw Thanasis waist deep in the water, holding Pavios over his head with trembling arms. “No Thanasis! Don’t do this! You can’t.”

Thanasis grunted and waded deeper into the river. “What are you doing? Turn around!”

Thanasis didn’t listen, either ignoring him or too far gone to understand. A dark, winged form exploded upward from the water next to them, the spirit-turned demon shrieking its despair to the uncaring God above. Pavios hissed as droplets of the riverwater landed on his face and burned like shards of ice.

The whole world seemed to turn, and for a heart-stopping moment Pavios thought he’d thrashed his way out of Thanasis’s grasp and was about to plunge headfirst into the lethal waters. Then he landed roughly on jagged rock and understood.

Thanasis had carried him to a small stone that jutted out of the river. It was a tiny thing, with barely enough room for a single person to cling to it and stay out of the water. Not two dozen feet away the slaughter continued unabated. Thousands were pushed into the waters, screamed and faded away. That would have been his fate, if not for Thanasis. Some surrendered to despair and leapt from the river on demonic wings, but for every one that escaped a hundred slipped under the surface.

He reached out for Thanasis, who stood chest deep in the water. “You can’t leave me.”

“Don’t follow me this time.” A sad smile tugged at his lover’s face as Thanasis fell sideways and disappeared under the surface.

Pavios was alone.

Elspeth watched the carnage in silent horror. Countless spirits had been pushed into the river, and everywhere she looked demons were exploding up from the boiling waters. Their unearthly bellows mixed with the panicked screams and rousing war chants from the shore. The mist clung thick and low to the ground, hiding the massacre from all but those closest to the river’s waters.

As she watched, a minotaur caught sight of the slaughter ahead and bellowed with glee. It scooped up a soldier in each enormous hand and threw them overhead. Both landed far into the river, screaming and thrashing.

Elspeth tossed her spear to Dack and leapt from the rocky spur. As she fell she summoned wings of white light from her back. For a moment the angelic trumpets of Bant sounded faintly in her ears. Then her wings caught on the air and she soared out over the thrashing corpse of Erebos’s army. In a few heartbeats she reached the shore and fanned her wings to bring her to a halt over the panicked spirits. She grabbed one of the hands that reached up for her and beat her wings. With a few powerful flaps she lifted the spirit of an Akroan pikeman out of the crowd and flew him back to the rear of the army.

It was impossible to say how long Elspeth fought against the tide of spirits. Her wings shattered and reformed as her connections to Bant, Theros, Kaldheim and Dominaria failed in turn. In desperation she even called upon the power of the corrupted plane once called Mirrodin. She saved dozens from the fatal waters and even found Pavios clinging to a rock in the river. Ravos swooped through the air like a comet, levitating spirits out of danger a dozen at a time. None of it mattered.

For every spirit they saved hundreds more were forced bodily into the waters. She was fighting the tide with a bucket and a prayer, but the only god worth praying to drove the masses forward with the booming crack of his whip.

She was flying a wiry Setessan archer back from the shore when her wings shattered once more. Instinctively she reached out for another source of mana and found nothing. Her power was spent.

Gravity asserted itself and Elspeth plummeted towards the unforgiving rock below. She squeezed her eyes closed and curled into a ball around the archer, but the impact never came. She opened her eyes to find Ravos’s starlike radiance enveloping them both and holding them weightlessly beside him.

“How much do you have left?” he asked as he lowered the other spirits to the ground.

“I’m out,” Elspeth said. A sob wrenched its way out of her. “How could he do this?”

“That’s not Erebos.” Ravos plucked Dack and Pavios from the spur of rock and shot out across the river. “It took me a while, but I’m sure now. Whatever that is, it’s not a god.”

“So where’s Erebos?” Dack’s voice was whipped away by the wind as soon as he spoke.

“The Gods must have gotten caught up in the turmoil above.” They slowed as Ravos flew above the beach on the other side of the river. Newly dead spirits slumped on the sand underneath, waiting to be ferried to the underworld and blissfully unaware of the slaughter on the other shore.

Ravos’s flight curved upwards and took them to a small ledge hidden halfway up a sheer cliff. Elspeth, Dack, and Pavios drifted to the ground, but Ravos remained hanging in the air inches from the ledge. He pointed to the wall behind them with his staff. “That tunnel will take you to the world of the living. Find Erebos. Warn him what’s happening.”

“What about you?” Dack stared at him in disbelief. “You’re the priest.”

Ravos drifted away from the ledge. “Which is why it’s my duty to stop that thing. Or at least stall it until help arrives.” His knuckles whitened on his staff. “I pray Erebos hears your calls swiftly.”

With that he turned and shot back across the river like a comet.

Elspeth didn’t stay to watch him go. She gathered the trembling Pavios up in her arms and plunged into the narrow cave entrance.

It was pitch black inside, and the floor sloped sharply upwards. More than once Elspeth plowed into the rough walls. At times she had to scramble up the slick rocks on all fours with Pavios clinging to her back. Dack’s footsteps echoed off the tunnel walls behind her.

Finally a speck of light appeared ahead. The tunnel widened into a small cave that smelled of old blood and then she was out under the stars, shivering in the frigid air and blinking spots out of her eyes from even the faintest lights.

They stood in a small garden on a snow-covered hill. There was a road at the bottom of the hill and low houses on the other side of it, though only a few people were out this late at night. Each and every one of the women were staring at the sky. The branches of a great tree stretched overhead but were not enough to block out the chaos in the night sky.

Erebos loomed over the city, his skeletal body riddled with green arrows the size of tree trunks. While the imposter in the underworld had been formed from pure darkness, stars glimmered from the God’s body and robe, stars of Nyx. Only his eyes were a terrifying, bottomless black.

Elspeth laid Pavios down in the snow. As she looked up Erebos’s whip arced across the sky and snatched a spectral arrow out of the air. Another flick of his wrist sent the arrow flying back across the sky, though the branches overhead kept her from seeing where it went.

The coils of his whip crashed down among the trees. The ground shook and birds took to the air with chirps of distress.

Elspeth fell to her knees. “Please Erebos. Please hear me.”

The titanic figure didn’t react, too caught up in his duel with Nylea to notice the cries of a mortal.

“The underworld is dying. An imposter is massacring the dead in your name.” Her voice broke. “Save them Erebos. I beg you.”

Voices shouted out from down the hill. Soldiers were gathering, footsteps rushing up the hill towards Elspeth, yet she couldn’t tear her eyes from the unfeeling god above her.

Erebos wheeled away from the fight, his whip coiling like a serpent about to strike. Three arrows slammed into his back in rapid succession, but he didn’t waver. He brought his hand rushing down. The whip snapped out with a boom that put thunder to shame. It seemed to stretch impossibly towards the horizon. The lash of shadow went taut and Erebos hauled back on it like a fisherman’s pole.

All at once the whip came free. Elspeth half-imagined she saw something fly from its tip and arc across the sky in the blink of an eye. Before she could be certain the god turned back and sent a wave of billowing death towards the source of the arrows. Even on the ground far below Elspeth felt the terrible power of that spell in her bones. Brown and shriveled leaves rained down from the treetops and the corpse of a bird plummeted to the ground like a stone.

Erebos took a step and seemed to collapse, shrinking from the size of a mountain to a man that stood before Elspeth and Pavios. Almost absentmindedly he ripped the arrows from his chest and let them fall to the ground. Elspeth bowed before him.

“Twice now Ob Nixilis has invaded my realm. No more.” Erebos turned his gaze down and the ground shook as if from an earthquake. Elspeth could feel the underworld reshaping itself to its god’s whim. “I will defend my domain, yet the demon still lives.” The god’s empty eyes met Elspeth’s and she felt an indescribable cold pour into her. The darkness should have consumed her, yet it filled and strengthened her. “Fix that.”

The god’s gaze passed over Dack as if he weren’t there and came to rest on Pavios. He drifted to where the young man sat curled into a ball. “Come. It is time for us to return.”

Pavios looked up, his cheeks stained with tears. “No.” his trembling slowed and his voice hardened with anger. “That monster killed Thanasis. I’m finishing this.”

Erebos touched the young man on the brow. “As you wish.”

Then he was gone, vanishing and leaving a wide circle of dead grass behind.

Elspeth was the first to recover. “Let’s go. We’re not wanted here.” She waved vaguely to the warriors that were staring openmouthed at the space Erebos had just left. The sooner they left the sooner she’d be able to return to the underworld.

“I’m done.” Dack couldn’t lift his gaze from his boots.

“What?” Elspeth took a step towards him. “But the demon—”

“I’m not a hero!” Dack shoved her away. “I’m a thief, and a pretty poor one if this mess is anything to go by. We’re so off-plan here I ran out of letters for the backup plans. I don’t know where my gauntlet is, I was too late to stop the sleep plague, and it sounds like Ashiok left the plane. I’m not getting pulled into a literal god war. No. Screw that noise.” He threw her staff to the ground and sat down in the middle of the grove. “I’m going home.”

Elspeth watched him close his eyes and settle down with the same visible effort took her to planeswalk. She let him go. Theros wasn’t his world; he didn’t have to fight for it. Gods knew she’d made the same choice enough times.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami.

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