Joshua Olsen’s Cantrips & Catastrophies
A Magic the Gathering FanFiction short story
*Part 2 can be found here.
Outside Selhoff city limits. Somewhere in rural Nephalia
1:58 since first contact
As he so frequently was, Hommel had been right. Quennus had little trouble finding Brund’s secret purchase. The barn sat forlorn and abandoned on a fallow field overlooking a greasy-looking river. Some way away, a small farmhouse was returning to the earth, racing the unploughed fields. A quick flyby betrayed no presence of any living things in the field or farmhouse, but that the farm itself was sealed up tight, and had been carefully maintained just enough to keep out the weather, but not enough to look anything other than abandoned. He had the right place. Quennus considered using the roof to gain access, but discarded the notion as he had been lucky with the storm thus far and this was no time to push his luck.
Quennus landed before the great doors. Nothing for it but to open them. Quennus took a deep breath, slowly releasing it to calm himself. He hated head-on confrontations, they were so… uncivilised. Still, nothing for it, he had no idea how much time he had. Renna might well already be dead. He really hoped that wasn’t the case. The Ashmouth blade now in hand, Quennus gently braced his feet and slowly shunted one of the doors aside, slipping in as soon as there was enough room for him. He left the door open a crack in case he needed to make a quick escape.
It was dark inside. Warm too, and the air was still, pungent. Something like compost, earthy and cloying. Quennus stood still, letting his eyes adjust, getting a feel for the place. A moment of analysis could save a life a hundred times over. The interior of the barn was riddled with workbenches and large pieces of equipment. A few concoctions burbled away in tubes, and moths fluttered around the hazy air, but otherwise everything was quiet. Steel cables strung around the roof occasionally crackled, some sort of power system providing energy to a series of barely-there glowing orbs. A particularly impressive surge gave brief illumination to some huge canvas-covered mass, most likely a shipment of straw kept safe from the rain. Carefully Quennus cast a spell to render his clanking body much quieter, and he began to stalk through the interior. No sign of Brund, or Renna.
A gentle clinking of chains got Quennus’ attention, and he looked over to what must have been where Brund kept his test subjects, before he turned to experimenting on himself. A number of iron cages of various sizes were hung from chains. One of them had been broken open, and its interior was filled with some kind of organic mass. It was fibrous, something reminiscence of a spider’s webbing, though slimier and more lattice-like. Poking from the mass was Renna’s head. Whatever the stuff was, it had stuck her to the wall. She wasn’t awake, her head limp, crimson hair falling over her face.
Quennus approached, heart in his throat. Was she unconscious, or….
“Renna. Renna, wake up. It’s Kordel. Give me a sign that you’re alive.” Quennus’ voice was quiet, quiet enough to not be heard over the background noises of the barn. He hoped.
At his voice, Renna shifted, just the smallest amount. She moaned but didn’t open her eyes. Still alive, thank God. Quennus manipulated his artificial hand, replacing a number of his finger tips with surgical-quality scalpels. He began to gently saw at the tissue entrapping Renna, ripping sodden masses of the stuff away with his natural hand.
Renna didn’t respond further to his whispers or attempts to shake her awake, and he didn’t fancy his odds of carrying her out of her, so with a moment’s hesitation Quennus administered a measured slap to Renna’s cheek. As paradoxically was the case with the crudest of techniques, it worked a treat. Renna awoke, her eyes widening in stunned disbelief. When she spoke, he words were undeniably slurred.
“Kordel… what are you… never mind. You have to get me out of here. Please.”
Even in the midst of such circumstances, Quennus cocked an eyebrow.
“Why do you think I’m here, dear? It’s not for the ambience.”
“You have to hurry. Brund is here. He injected me with something… burning in my veins… he just kept saying ‘must make more… must make more…’ oh God, he could barely speak, his mouth was so distorted. He’s…” her voice broke with a hitched sob. “My body itches everywhere; my stomach is doing constant somersaults. What’s happening to me?”
“Renna, I don’t know. But I think you’re smart enough to suspect. The important thing is we get you out of here. It took Brund weeks to transform; you’ve only been exposed a bit over an hour. We’ll get you to my lab, and between the two of us we are going to fix this. You’re going to be okay, understand?”
Renna took a few deep ragged breaths, calming down somewhat. Eventually, she nodded.
“Good, now hold still. I’ll get you free. Where is Brund?”
“After he stuck me in here, and gave me whatever the hell he’s on, he seemed tired. The flying took it out of him. And he was twitching a lot, some kind of spasm. I don’t know where he went…. oh, Avacyn, preserve us.”
Renna was looking at something over Quennus’ shoulder, her face stark with horror. Even as he turned, Quennus could hear a squelchy sound coming from behind him. Movement had dislodged the tarp on the far side of the barn, revealing a fleshy lump the size of an ox-cart. The lump was lit by a slight yellow glow from within, and as they stared at the rocking mass, the imprint of a limb stretched the membrane of the thing. It was not a bale of hay.
A cocoon. A quote from Brund’s logbook floated through Quennus’ mind.
“Metamorphosis is a process…”
With effort, Quennus forced himself to turn away from the writhing madness behind him. Adrenaline blazed through his system, and he shoved his fist through the goo like a shovel through earth. Gripping Renna tight, Quennus braced and heaved. Pistons and iron whirred as Quennus leveraged his strength against the cocoon, and as it often did, iron won out. With a sucking sound Renna was heaved from her prison. Behind him, the sound of ripping flesh intensified as Brund pulled himself from his cocoon. Quennus clapped Renna on the shoulder, pointing to the barn door, the only escape route.
“Renna, RUN!! Get out of here! Get to my lab! I’ll meet you there!”
“Are you crazy? What about you?”
“I’ll hold him off! Go, NOW!”
He shoved her away, heard her footsteps as she dashed for the door. Good, he had bigger things to deal with. Literally.
With a final violent thrust, the cocoon split in two, disgorging the creature that had once been Professor Brund.
The Brund-thing must have been 8 feet tall, maybe 8 and a half. Arms that once bore fingers now ended in mantis-like pincers, and the body was a gross swollen thing, totally encased in a hard exoskeleton except for a few patches of softer-looking lattice-like growth. Huge fly-like wings sprouted from the back, twitching and buzzing as they shook off the fluids of its rebirth. But most ghastly of all was the head. Three compound eyes, so black they almost looked like scooped-out cavities, fixed on Quennus, and mandibles clacked in hostility, or perhaps just base hunger. Perhaps there was recognition in those eyes, but there was no way to tell. There was nothing human left to see. A nightmarish maw of clacking teeth, seemingly stuffed in a hole of a mouth with no care for order or jaw structure, clacked and drooled. The creature rose up to its full height and extended its limbs, screeching like a banshee.
Quennus didn’t wait for the Brund-thing to make the first move: that would be a mistake. To humanize Brund at this stage would be fatal. Quennus had come here to make sure Brund’s madness harmed no others, and to do that he had to put down the beast the man had become. The Ashmouth blade was in his hand. He could feel its power streaming out of it like heat from a forge. Quennus tensed to spring forward, the attack order in his mind… when Brund hit him like a sledgehammer, sending him flaying across the room. With a tremendous crash Quennus slammed into a table, sending papers and vials flying. It had been a long time since he’d been hit that hard. Brund was strong. Still he’d faced strong opponents…
A huge blur appeared before him, accompanied by the sound of buzzing wings. Before Quennus could even move, a pincer claw came down, aiming for his face. He barely managed to twist to the side, and the claw punched through the table right where he had been, turning the wood to splinters. Okay, so Brund was fast too, freakishly fast. Brund tried to pull his limb back out, but it was stuck in the table. Now was his chance. Quennus lunged forward, slashing the Ashmouth Blade in a wide strike once, twice. Wide gashes appeared on the dead-flesh coloured exoskeleton, and Brund reared back with a screech of pain, pulling his trapped arm free in the process. Quennus leapt up and followed his foe, his blade weaving a razored pattern through the air, giving Brund no chance to get his bearings. The huge insect danced back before the assault, far more nimble than its huge size should have allowed. It was like fighting an elf, a elf with the brute strength of a enraged ogre.
Still, the fell enchantments of the Ashmouth Blade allowed Quennus to match his foe’s dexterity, and he pushed ahead recklessly. Eventually the Brund-thing was too slow with its retreat, throwing a distracted jab with a claw. Quennus twisted, metal screeching as the chitinous talon scraped off his Mizzium-plated shoulder, and he slipped inside Brund’s gangly reach. The Blade whipped forward stinger-point first, stabbing into one of the fleshy lattice-growths on the Brund-thing’s chest, and sank in with almost no resistance. Quennus gave a roar of triumph, and pushed harder, forcing the blade in to the hilt. His foe went still, its movements losing animation as it looked down at the weapon buried deep within it as if surprised. Quennus wrenched the blade free, red-black blood spurting from the gaping wound. He waited, waited for the monstrosity to keel over and pass on from its cursed life. It wasn’t happening. With a horrible stunned realisation Quennus gaped as he saw that the bleeding from the grievous wound had already stopped. The flesh didn’t heal, it just sealed up, leaving behind angry, red-raw but sealed flesh. The other cuts had also already done likewise, barely penetrating the tough exoskeleton. Brund’s transformation hadn’t just enhanced his strength and reflexes, but his physiological resilience as well. He’d just shrugged off multiple longsword strikes, including a total impalement.
Brund lashed out with another ear-rending screech, two arms like serrated steel bars smashing Quennus. He rolled backwards with the impact, coming up onto his feet, just in time to take another superhuman blow. Now it was Brund who pursued, pummelling Quennus in unmistakable rage. Two blows were absorbed by mechanical parts with little damage, but one limb punched just right, breaking two ribs. Quennus gasped with pain, tried to get back, but another heavy limb swung, lacerating his side before he could leap away. Quennus reached for his weapon, anything to ward off his attacker, give him a moment to get his bearings, then realised that the Ashmouth blade wasn’t in his hand. Brund’s grasshopper-like legs launched his swollen mass into the air, and then those legs were kicking out like twin pistons. Stars burst across Quennus’ his natural eye and his mechanical replacement’s vision scrambled as well. His vision was gone, but physical sensation was all too present as he crashed off several all-too-hard surfaces. Quennus could taste blood, and the several parts of his body still with feeling were starting to regret that.
Quennus half stood, his legs wobbly, threatening to fail him totally. He leant on a heavy desk for a moment, then gripped the desk hard. With a yell of exertion he whipped the desk up, throwing it bodily at Brund. That should slow it down. A split second later Quennus bit back a curse as Brund charged into the flying projectile, bursting through it in a shower of timbers, apparently unharmed. He came forward again, and Quennus reacted on instinct, throwing a hand out as if that could stop the charging monstrosity. Thankfully, being a planeswalker meant that sometimes that worked, and a hurriedly-cast cantrip saw lengths of spectral blue chain leap out and ensnare Brund. Quennus lurched forward, stumbling for the Ashmouth blade. He hadn’t made it more than a few steps before an unearthly wrenching occurred and Quennus stared in horror as Brund snapped the immobilizing spell holding thing, rupturing the bonds of magic like a dog shaking off water. A sinking feeling in his stomach, Quennus reached for a more powerful spell, one to stop Brund for good.
The time it took Quennus to search his mental repertoire was an eternity for a creature with the speed of Brund. Quennus had just started to reach for the mana to shape the magic when Brund hit him with the force of a rhino, the momentum forcing Quennus off his feet and down into the dirt. Metal strained under the force and Quennus felt his lungs squash in as Brund pinned him to the ground. Then Brunds’ nightmare of a face was descending. Foul breath assaulted Quennus’ nose, rotting vegetation and something spicy. Brund was salivating profusely, drool spilling from his maw of interlocking jaws and mismatched teeth. Quennus turned his head to avoid the sight…. and saw that the force of Brund’s tackle had pushed them quite close to the Ashmouth blade. Within arms reach as a matter of fact. Too bad Brund was about to chew his face off.
Quennus thrust an arm out, trying to ward off the monstrosity just above him. Bad move. With a tittering schreech that maybe, maybe, was chuckling, Brund lunged forward, engulfing Quennus’ arm in its mouth up to the elbow. It felt like he’d put his arm in a box full of daggers. He could actually feel a rhythmic rolling as Brund chewed his arm, the stabbing wave of agony rolling around as the muscles shifted. Screaming as the pain ripped through him, Quennus managed to somehow snatch up the blade and stabbed widly, desperate to bring an end to the agony. The Ashmouth blade stabbed deep into the side of Brund’s jaw, and it reared back, swatting at the blade left embedded. Quennus rolled, scrambling to get out from under Brund. His organic arm (why did it have to be the organic arm? Stupid! Stupid!) was shredded, thankfully not broken but every impulse sent to move it returned signals of fiery pain. He managed to stagger to his feet and forced himself to run, run for the barn door.
Brund was too much…too tough, too fast, too strong. Quennus couldn’t defeat him this way, he wasn’t some damn warrior-hero. He was more of a spy than a soldier, and even soldiers couldn’t stop this thing. He had to escape, recuperate, get away. Panting, sides killing him with spikes of pain, arm a brutalised mass of torn tissue, Quennus heard Brund’s fly-wings starting up again. Instinct told him to turn around, but he ignored it, and concentrated on running faster.
Quennus burst out of the barn into the rain. Into the fresh air, the blessed sky. He leapt, snapping open his wings midair and flapping with all his might. They caught, lifting him, but the effort caused a groan to escape the aven’s beak. He had never been a particularly strong flyer, and the evening exertions (and substantial injuries) had taken it out of him further. If he could just get up high enough, he could lose himself in the storm clouds. Not an ideal spot, but probable death was better than certain death.
Flapping madly, Quennus swiftly gained height, leaving the barn behind. Rain pelted his face and lightning crackled through the sky, too close for comfort, but with each flap the ground receded and a sense of calm started to settle Quennus once more. Reading the clouds as only a native to the skies could, Quennus angled his flight, drifting between the colossal shapes of storm clouds to a position of relative distance, and therefore safety. Now he had a moment to think, to plan a move. Quennus let out a deep breath and weaved a spell of summoning, reaching out for a familiar signal of metal and magic. A moment later, the Ashmouth Blade appeared in his outstretched hand and after inspecting it for a moment, Quennus sheathed it. A shame to leave such an intriguing piece of work lying forgotten in the mud. He’d look over it in time. But first…
Quennus extracted a small ticking cogwork device, turning it over and finely manipulating a number of small hinges and levers. He’d get back to his lab and cure Renna. Then, they could plan something to deal with Brund. No doubt between the two of them they could figure out what to do about…
The attack was shockingly sudden.
Brund crashed into Quennus, knocking him from the sky. So much for hiding in the clouds. Brund could not only fly, he could fly fast, those sets of fly-like wings beating the air in a droning hum. Quennus tried to open his wings to arrest his fall, but a searing pain greeted his efforts and his wings snapped shut in involuntary response. Instead, Quennus pulled his wings in close and tucked in, letting gravity take over, streamlining his profile to drop. He could hear Brund screeching somewhere behind him in manic anger, and then the dreaded whirr of his wings and as Brund pursued him. Too fast to escape, even if he could fly. Just too much. Everything, too much. It was a race to see what would reach him first, the ground or Brund. Quennus found the choices on hand unappealing and decided to take a third option.
Still freefalling, Quennus’ fingers danced over the controls of the trinket, readjusting his jump. He didn’t have time to focus on a proper Planeswalk, there were too many distractions going on and he might be killed before he could make it. Thank God he didn’t only rely on natural processes to get things done.
There. The device was set, a simple cantrip and he would be in Tarkir. A safe place to recuperate. Then he could come back and deal with Renna.
Quennus pulled his arm back to throw the device. All he had to do was throw it below him and then fall through the resultant portal. Easy. Quennus cocked his arm back…
With a crunch, Brund crashed into him once more, sending the trinket spinning through the air. It spiralled off course for some distance before breaking, releasing its load of energy and creating the portal to another plane. Except now Quennus was not going to get to it. Being a transporting rent in space, the portal didn’t fall, but hovered where it was, stubbornly refusing to bow to gravity’s laws. The same couldn’t be said for Quennus. In mere moments he would fall past it, and then that would be it.
Brund was locked in close, the slight disorientation from colliding with a moving target all that stopped him from attacking Quennus any further. That wouldn’t last. Quennus turned from the portal to look Brund in his what-passed-for-a-face. He felt as if he’d been fighting Brund forever.
“Bugs shouldn’t try to pick on birds,” hissed Quennus, lunging forward. His silver-plated beak stabbed right into one of Brund’s eye pits, the resulting foul taste that filled Quennus’ mouth almost made him vomit. Brund was trying to push himself away to address the issue of his ruptured eye, and Quennus assisted, flexing his legs and pushing off his attacker like he was a springboard. Brund was launched away as Quennus briefly leapt up, but it wasn’t going to be enough to reach the portal. Close, but not close enough.
He could hear Brund’s wings kick in again. In the space of a fraction of a second they headed his way with alarming speed. With a pained cry, Quennus forced his wings open, fought through the expectant surge of pain, and forced his battered wings to flap once, twice. That was enough.
Somewhere within Ojutai territory, Plane of Tarkir
Suddenly the rain was gone, and the cold, and the lightning. Bright sunlight and birdsong replaced it. That and solid ground. Quennus rolled end over end with his sudden change in orientation, shedding his falling momentum on sand. Something big crashed into the ground somewhere near his position. Quennus didn’t try to fight his tumbling landing. He’d severed the portals’ connection to Innistrad the moment he’d made it through. He’d only risk further injury fighting his roll. Better to just let it happen.
Eventually his world righted, or at least stopped spinning. Quennus lay there a moment, enjoying the simple pleasure of the feel of sun seeping into his flesh. Then he heard the rasping. Quennus’ snapped open his eyes, sitting up, already alert for a threat. He was reaching for the Ashmouth Blade when he spotted the source, and he stopped.
The Brund-thing had been so fast, so determined, that it had pursued Quennus even as he made his escape through the portal. Well, most of Brund had.
Like a beached whale, roughly half of what had once been Professor Brund lay beached on the sand. The closing portal must have trapped half of Brund in Innistrad and half in Tarkir. Amazingly, he was still alive, though he looked like he wouldn’t be for too long. Steam wafted from the point of bisection and a tangle of bizarre organs had slid out to stain the sand in a slowly spreading island of black-purple ichor.
Quennus stood and took a careful step forward, wary of approaching too close. Brund was writhing feebly. He no longer looked like a monster on the rampage. Now he looked like all creatures did when close to death; feeble, afraid, and alone. Despite it all, Quennus felt a stirring of pity for Brund. This was not an enviable way to pass.
Brund seemed to notice Quennus, stretching out a deformed insect-hand. The gesture was unmistakably human.
Slowly, Quennus drew out the Ashmouth Blade. Brund’s eye-pits followed the motion and his mouth parts moved slowly, eventually speaking in raspy, agonized, yet just intelligible english.
“My work… my progress…”
“Your work made progress, professor. But it came with at a price, a price no one else is going to be forced to pay. It’s not worth it. It was never worth it.”
The Ashmouth Blade lanced out. One strike, clean through the head. Surgical in its aim. Brund fell, stone dead.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
Wiping the sword on the sand, Quennus stood.
He spent the next two hours at that secluded cove, summoning some basic constructs to dig a deep grave in the beach. Eventually, when he had finished rudimentary repairs to the damage to his wings and chest, Quennus clapped his hands twice and the constructs tipped the bisected corpse in. In moments it was covered in sand, buried so deep that no one would ever find it. Some things were better off never being, and if they did, then buried so deep no one would ever know of them was a close second.
At last, as the sun began to sink below the horizon, Quennus was ready. This time there was nothing to interrupt his artefact toss, the portal opening once more on a world wracked with black skies and heavy rain. His wings were stiff and sore but they would do the job. Quennus dived through the portal back to Innistrad. In twenty minutes he was approaching Selhoff. His dwelling was there to greet him as he glided in, a small stone tower sequestered on a sparsely-populated street, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the town centre. Making his final approach Quennus could see a figure winding up the road. A gust of wind knocked the wearer’s hood off, revealing rain-slicked crimson hair. Renna.
As the alchemist approached his tower, Quennnus neatly landed behind her. Reactivating his guise of Kordel the Cryptic, Quennus hailed Renna as she was about to knock on the door. At once she spun, child-like relief on her face. Without a word she sprinted through the rain to him, almost knocking the air from his lungs as she wrapped him in a wet but welcome hug.
“Oh Kordel… I thought for sure I’d never see you again! I should have stayed, but I was so scared. What about Brund? Is he…”
“He won’t be hurting anyone again. The less said about it, the better.”
He knew of course that she’d have questions, many questions. But those would come later, once they had gotten inside, warm and safe.
Quennus stroked Renna’s head, did his best comfort the traumatized young woman.
“Easy now. You’re safe. It’s all over. Let’s get inside and take a look at you. No doubt it will be a simple matter to undo whatever has been done to you. But first, I think a pot of hot tea and a warm fire to drink it by would hit the spot.”
“That sounds lovely.”
“After you, my dear.”
Holding the door open for Renna to scurry inside, Quennus stopped on the threshold looking back out over the landscape of Innistrad. The plane was currently painted with dark shades, lashed with cold rain and biting winds, lit only by the flickering illumination of lightning. For a moment Quennus pondered the horror and grim nature of his night. Out there lay many dangers – many would not live to see the sunrise.
Before these dark thoughts could take hold, Quennus shook his head and turned his back on the world outside, instead focusing on the warmth, safety and company of his home. He’d earned a quiet night in.
Magic the Gathehring fanfiction by Joshua Olsen