*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
*Part 1 can be found here
00:48 since first contact
Old Rutstein was one of Innitrad’s most successful traders, his range of shops numerous beyond any of his competitors and variety of wares diverse almost beyond reason. Whether you wanted a high-quality silver-edged axe (Kessig store, dangling in the front window) or a cursed urn (Nephalia store, collecting dust on the third shelf from the back), one of Old Rutstein’s stores had it.
Rutstein, despite his advanced years, travelled nearly constantly between his stores, slowly but surely winding his way across all the major population centers of Innistrad. Fortunately for him, he was on a carriage to Stensia that night. Fortunate not because he was in any danger of marauding insect-man hybrids flying around, but because Quennus had decided to pay the Selhoff store a visit after hours, and was not in a diplomatic mood, nor a mercantile one.
With a wave of a hand, the metal lock on the front door reformed into liquid slag, dripping down the door and onto the cobblestones. With no lock, the door swung wide open in the storm winds. Quennus strode inside with purpose, forcing himself to scan the shelves methodically. Normally one of the view-sets in his mechanical eye could discern magic in objects, but in Old Rutstein’s store the whole place radiated the stuff.
Impatiently Quennus stalked the isles. “Come on. There must be something…”
He avoided coming into contact with a serrated handaxe that was somehow still dripping blood, and covered around the haft with some sort of organic web-like growth.
The large ornate knife studded with gems was similarly a bad idea. As his hand moved to close around it a kind of far-off drawn-out howl slashed into his mind. The hand was swiftly retracted.
And on the top shelf, there was a genuine looking spellbook, covered in purple symbols and held behind a sealed glass dome. Quennus went to investigate extricating the book, but merely looking at it filled his mind’s eye with visions of such cruelty and spite that he hurriedly threw a cloth over it.
“Something that won’t try to kill me or suck my soul out would be nice! Is there anything here of use?!” ranted Quennus in exasperation.
Outside, completely unconcerned with the frustration of a planeswalker, the storm clouds shifted aside for a moment, letting pure moonlight filter down into the window of the shop. At the same time, the bells tolled sonorously to signal midnight.
With an abrupt screech a small unassuming shortsword, long-held in a glass display case, let out a burst of raw power, shattering the glass of the display case with concussive force. Baleful azure energy wafted off the thing, and the lanterns around it jittered in their frames. Cautiously, Quennus stepped forward, wary for some kind of attack.
“I remember you…”
He’d seen the dusty thing a few days ago while shopping in disguise. Rutstein had clearly been trying to part with some of his more unappetizing merchandise and had twisted Quennus’ ear for some minutes on the supposedly storied history of it.
“There is rich history in a blade like this,” he had spieled with a conspiratorial wink. “Its previous owners had some stories to share, I’m certain,” he had added.
At the time Quennus had dismissed the tidbits as salesmanship. It seemed he was wrong on this occasion.
Running his hands over the blade, Quennus marveled at the workmanship of the thing. It was ornate, clearly intended for some kind of special purpose. Sapphires winked in the hilt and metallic demon heads had been wrought into the steel, their engraved faces now glowing blue with power. The blade had lengthened by several centimeters, and had warped into something more akin to a barbed stinger. The differences were more than just steel-deep, the blade was suffused with fell magic. A quick probe revealed that dire curses and dark deeds had been lavished upon the sword at times when the sun was not out to unbind them, and at night they activated, making the small sword a more potent weapon than any greatsword. After taking a moment to make sure that the inherent sorceries were designed to cause harm to the wielder’s enemies and not the wielder, Quennus took up the Ashmouth blade, unsurprised that it felt as if it had been forged specifically for him. He gave the sword a few experimental swings. Perfect balance, and it seemed to zip through the air with supernatural ease. Which, thanks to magic, it probably did.
“An exquisite piece of quality. I knew you wouldn’t let me down Rutstein.” Quennus conjured a scabbard to hold the sword (it didn’t seem wise to grip it any more than was strictly necessary) and moments later he was out in the rain again.
“Now, Brund, where did you get to?” Reins snapped lightly, and Neka took to the sky once more.
1:21 since first contact
The street was filled with a heavy silence as Neka came in for a landing. Brund’s residence was a compact little two-storey wedged between an inn and an apothecary, open to a claustrophobic cobblestone alley. Quennus had expected his contact to be waiting for him on the street, but only the plinking of the rain greeted him. Hommel shouldn’t have been hard to spot. Innistrad bucked the trend that suggested that cities never slept, once the sun went down the streets were basically deserted. Drawing the Ashmouth Blade, Quennus patted Neka three times, an instruction that he was done and she could go. With an affectionate chirp, the moondrake took to the air and in moments was gone. Now Quennus was truly on his own, and already he missed the company of another living creature. Slowy, cautiously, Quennus advanced on Brund’s house. He could see through the gloom that the front door was open, swinging back and forth in the storm wind.
“Investigator, are you there?”
“Investigator, its Kordel. If you’re there, answer me now.”
Still nothing. Was that a rustling, somewhere behind the door?
“Hommel, damn you! Hommel, answer me now!”
A floorboard creaked from within the dark depths of the house, the sound distorted by the distance and the storm winds. Quennus’ pulse spiked, his heart thumping in his metal-plated chest.
It was time to act, that’s what he’d come here for; not to be hissing at what was probably a horribly mutated Brund. With a surge of adrenaline, Qunnus lurched into a wound-up kick, belting the door open with force. Quennus sprang into the room, whirling around, scanning for threats. It was pitch-black, but there was a light source coming from the stairs….
“It’s a good thing you’re a genius, Kordel, because you wouldn’t make it as an investigator. You’re about as quiet as a werewolf with a stubbed toe.”
The light resolved itself into a middle-age man with a prominent nose, dressed in well-made clothes and bearing a heavy iron lantern. A superior smirk was on the man’s face.
Quennus let out a sigh of relief, shearing his sword. “Hommel, you’re a sight for sore eyes. I thought I told you to stay outside.”
Hommel shrugged, unconcerned. “There’s a mystery to be solved, Kordel. I’ve skirted around it for months, keeping on the edge, following your instructions, observing and reporting only. Well now, something big is going down, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.” Curiosity blazed from him like a palpable energy.
“Fine. Let’s get to it. I need to know where he is.”
“Way ahead of you, come on up to Brund’s lab. It’s… informative. You’ll want to see it.”
The pair snuck up the stairs, the feeling that they weren’t supposed to be there present in every breath, every step. The attic was cavernous, containing bookcase after bookcase filled with ancient tomes of magic and workbenchs covered with experiments. Quennus immediately hustled over to a gigantic desk, assessing the papers and books strewn haphazardly.
Brund’s deteriorating state of mind was evident in his everywhere. This wasn’t how labwork was supposed to be conducted – precise, ordered, and controlled. This was messy and haphazard, sweat-stained and hurried. Not how any laudable science was meant to be. Quennus rifled through the stacks of papers, each one adding a piece of a puzzle that no man should want to solve. Hommel was meanwhile checking out the textbooks on the closest bookshelf.
“The Mechanics of Insect Politics… The Metamorphic Imperative… Theories of Cross-Species Trans-substantiation…, geez, this guy wasn’t working with a full deck of cards, was he? What the hell was he trying to do? ”
“The problem wasn’t him trying. It was in him succeeding. I don’t know what lore he was following up, but it has to be…. ah ha!”
Beneath a stack of papers there was a small leatherbound tome, full of diagrams and text. Brund’s research log. Eagerly Quennus flipped through it. Entries, each an all-too-brief flash of insight into a dark and twisted mind, leapt out at Quennus.
“Entry #1: I have had a dream…for a work that, if it is realized, will revolutionize how we live our lives. I am eager to begin at once…”
Quennus flipped through; there’d be time to scrutinize this book cover to cover later, right before he burnt it all to ash.
“Entry #43: How my test subjects scream and howl as I refine the procedure! If only they could understand the importance of what I am doing…”
“Entry #78: Unfortunately, all my test animals have died or escaped, so I shall be the final subject. I feel no fear. This is a momentous night.”
Shortly after this entry, the neat handwriting began to become more scrawled and messy.
“Entry #113: The end result is…. Unexpected, but I have made progress. It is only now of course that I realize that the project is not yet done. Metamorphosis is a process…”
Quennus flipped to the end. The final entry was dated just last night, barely recognizable as written english.
“Entry #147: All that is left is to share my findings with others. I know just the person subject…
I Have awakened from the falsehood that is humanity”
That was it. The rest of the book was blank, though spattered with stains, some sticky to the touch. Quennus snapped it shut, looking up for Hommel. When he did, he noticed that the orange glow from the lantern had obscured the moonlight filtering into the room. Filtering in from a huge hole in the wall where once a window had been. Whatever had left the laboratory had been too big for the window, and had made its own exit to the outside world. Violently.
“Avacyn preserve us…”
“Even Avacyn might have trouble with the thing that did this. Has to be at least seven and a half feet tall, based on the dimensions of the hole. Tough-skinned too, I’d say.”
“Why do you think that?” mumbled Quennus distractedly.
“Not think. There’s a clue. You gotta learn to look for clues. They’re always there.” Hommel pointed. Quennus followed his finger to the edge of the hole, where a piece of skin hung from a piece of splintered wood. The skin wasn’t soft and malleable, but hard. Quennus snatched it and pocketed the evidence.
“You’ve done great, Hommel, premier work as always. Here’s the extra gold I mentioned. And now you need to forget this.”
“Kordel, be reasonable. This case…”
“…is not your concern. Believe me when I say, for you, the case is over. If you knew what I knew, you would be glad to hear that. There will be other mysteries, Investigator, ones much less hazardous for you. Look at the size of the whole in the wall. I’m tracking whatever did that. That’s on me, and I’m okay with that. But I won’t have your blood on my hands. Go home. Please.”
Hommel stiffened. When he spoke his voice was brittle, laden with anger. “Fine. But before I go, if my services are no longer needed, then you won’t want me to point out that I know where Brund has gone to, seeing as he is no longer… in residence. Right?”
“Brund? You know where he is? Tell me!”
Hommel gestured to a scattered sheaf of papers on the bench.
“You were too busy pursuing the fantastic. The answer lay in the mundane. Land purchase records, deeds of title, delivery dockets, receipts…a paper trail. Brund bought a tract of very isolated farmland outside of town. Nothing on it but a dilapidated barn and there’s evidence he had some materials brought out to it once. Sound like what you want?”
“It’s on the estuary, near the stone bridge. Follow the waterway, you can’t miss…”
Quennus was already running, launching himself out the gaping hole in the room. Midair, his wings snapped open, and he launched up into the sky, flapping hard to gain height. In moments he had cleared the buildings and soared with purpose in the direction of a still river, a dark speck against the sky. He didn’t look back.
Left alone, Hommel stepped over to the hole, peering out of it to scan the sky. Did Kordel just bloomin’ fly? With wings? Where the hell had they come from?
After a long moment, Hommel stepped away from the hole, turned up his collar, and patted his pocket for his pipe. He lit the pipe as he continued to stare at the cloudy night sky.
“Now that…is a mystery.”
*Part 3 can be found here.
Magic the Gathehring fanfiction by Joshua Olsen
Being born with wings meant that Quennus had a few extra survival lessons to learn when growing up. One of the most important was about lightning. Places you wanted to be when an electrical storm was howling its fury: inside your home, warm dry and snug, or failing that, beneath the canopy of a forest.
Places you didn’t want to be during a ferocious electrical storm: on the rooftop of one of the tallest towers in the province, the tallest thing around for as far as the eye could see.
And yet that was where Quennus found himself, being battered with gales of wind and sheets of rain.
Thankfully, he had not yet been burned to a crisp by an errant bolt of lightning, nor would he be this evening, according to the spiel by the enthusiastic scientist addressing the small crowd.
“There is no place like a rooftop laboratory in a lightning storm. It’s where genius strikes,” exclaimed Renna, all dramatic gestures and loud speaking to be heard over the storm.
Behind the alchemist was a huge contraption, some kind of glass enclosure wrapped with copper wires and held tight by steel supports. Quennus had made those supports on commission from Renna, and had metalworked the struts with no effort, but he had no idea what she was planning on using them for. Now that question would be answered. When the reclusive members of the secret society that was the Progress Brethren met, it was to share their inventions and broaden understanding.
“But, as you can imagine, storms present a danger to the intellectual. So, after much experimentation I have created this storm-catching device. Not only does it attract lighting, but it stores the power of the storm for use in my other experiments. Nothing warms up a vial of regents like a bit of stored…”
As if trying to demonstrate her genius, the sky split at that moment, and a bolt of raw power arced earthward. With a crash it struck the device, which glowed white. Then it absorbed the lightning into its depths with apparent ease, leaving Renna completely unharmed. The alchemist had been standing no more than three metres from the point of impact. She didn’t even look behind her.
Renna took a slight bow as the assembled politely clapped in appreciation. A hubbub of discussion rippled through the crowd as the Progress Brethern discussed the merits and implications of the invention. Deftly, Renna hopped down from her little podium, throwing a smile Quennus’ way. Of course, she knew him in his Innistrad guise, fellow alchemist and tinkerer , Kordel the Cryptic.
“Kordel, you scoundrel! What did you think of your work, which of course made my work… work.”
“Very impressive. No doubt every necro-alchemist and skabaren will want one.”
Renna tossed her crimson hair, slicking water everywhere. “If they can afford it, and your commission rates, then maybe they’ll get one. But I doubt it, this thing cost a king’s ransom. Besides, I don’t know if I can do it again. So, did Ludevic show up this time?”
Quennus shook his head. “No, once again the self-styled master alchemist has not graced us with his presence. I don’t know what he gets up to in that lab that makes him think he can’t join the Brethern for meetings.”
“I don’t think I want to know. There’s no question he’s brilliant, but there’s something about that man that sends a shiver down my spine. We’re all better off he stays indoors.”
Quennus disagreed, though he understood the sentiment. But he’d formed the Progress Brethren around 150 years ago in a different guise specifically to draw out the recluses of Innistrad, and get them together and talking. By doing so, and dropping in occasionally to keep an eye and ear on the proceedings, he’d averted eight potential scientific and quasi-magical disasters from harming Innistrad. Most of these simply required an anonymous scroll to the local cathars. But every now and again the threat was so pronounced that Quennus had to take care of it personally. One such incident occurred three seasons ago, when he’d been forced to dispose of the work of a respected scholar who had stumbled onto a remarkable concoction that made him undergo profound physiological transformations at night. Sadly, the transformations also unhinged his mind from restraint and compassion, forcing him to give into hedonistic urges no human should act on. That terrifying night of rooftop pursuit was something Quennus hoped he’d not have to do again.
Renna resettled her hat as another lightning bolt lashed out, striking the contraption and being absorbed with a spray of sparks.
“Well, I’d better look to clearing the podium. ‘Geistmage’ Dierk is up next. Want to take a guess at what he’s got to present?”
Quennus chuckled. “Well, maybe he’ll surprise us, and have something related or powered by Geists this time, just to be unexpected.”
“Wouldn’t that be something. Well, enjoy the rest of the demonstrations, and I look forward to seeing what you’ve got to show, Kordel. Maybe afterwards you can join me for a warm cup of tea before you make your way home.”
“With weather like this, sounds good.”
With a last wave, Renna departed, slinking through the crowd to continue the exhibitions, and Quennus was left alone. Rubbing his hands to ward off the cold, Quennus turned to see if there was anything else that required his attention. There was Dierk, chatting excitedly and waving around some small brass orbs in his hands. No doubt there were geists trapped inside. And over there were the Rupkik twins, Marko and Anna, carrying some kind of brain in a jar, the thing bobbing about in preservative fluid as they struggled along with it. And standing over by the edge of the roof was…..
Quennus blinked water out of his eyes. It couldn’t be, surely? But it was: Professor Brund.
Now there was someone who warranted further attention.
It was surprising to see Brund here; the Professor had declined to come to the last three meetings. His absence had been noted: Quennus had decided to keep a long-range eye on Brund, and his informant had been reporting that Brund rarely left his dwelling, often staying in for weeks at a time. He had meals delivered, and was never out for more than a night before returning. Brund had a brilliant mind, and was clearly working on something, as evidenced by the fact that his purchase orders for small animals had more than tripled since his seclusion. At the best of times he was a reclusive individual given to pangs of paranoia and jealousy. Quennus didn’t want to think about what weeks of solitude out of the sun and social contact had done to his mindset, but whether he liked it or not, he needed to find out. Whether it was for Innistrad or Brund’s own well-being remained to be seen.
Quennus needed merely think of his cover guise, and the phyrexian programming (usually such a bane, but its uses) would engage, filling his mind’s eye with relevant data about his cover and its interactions with Brund, automatically modulating his voice and mannerisms without any acting training required. So when Professor Brund looked up, all he saw was Kordel the Cryptic, fellow nonthreatening academic.
“Evening, Professor. A pleasure to see you, even on an evening such as this.”
For a long moment, Brund didn’t reply. When he did, Quennus had to strain to hear him. He seemed to be muttering.
“Yes yes….. its Kordel. The… cryptic, that’s it! He won’t do, oh no. Not right. Not right at all. Not… optimal. Chatty. So, so chatty. Won’t he just leave me be? So much work to do. So important. The work…”
Up close, the professor didn’t look well. He had almost comically over-dressed for the occasion, wrapped in layer upon layer of heavy cloth. Tall leather boots sheathed his legs, and thick gloves wrapped his hands. Only his face was uncovered, through wrapped in a purple cloth hood that covered that obscured view.
“So, how have you been Brund? You’ve missed the last few meetings; does this mean you have something exciting new to show off? You know, I’ve always found your work to be fascinating. What have you been up to?”
Brund turned to face Quennus more squarely, though with the stormclouds and the rain his face remained hidden from sight. There was something a bit… off about the Professor’s body language, but Quennus couldn’t put a finger on what it was.
“I have figured it out Kordel. Yes, yes I have! The answer!”
“The answer to what? The angel’s madness? The lunar fluctuations?”
Abruptly, Brund’s arm shot out, coincidentally gripping Quennus’ organic arm. He seized the wrist in a surprisingly powerful grip.
“No, don’t you understand? Blind! Dullard! The angels? Tides? External pressures, like the changing of the seasons. Day to night, Harvest Moon to Hunter’s moon. Ghouls, Vampires, Angels: all just environmental pressures. Pointless to try and understand them. No. No! NO! Instead we must understand how to adapt to them, adapt to a new way of living. Life finds a way. We must find a way! And now I have it!”
Brund’s voice rose and fell erratically, broken up by pauses of tittering that brought to mind insectile chirping. Quennus was a little unnerved. Whatever sanity the long-eccentric man had, it had taken a serious battering. He might be well served in a sanitarium after tonight. Quennus was fairly sure he could see spittle spraying from beneath the hood, and tried to step back, remove his arm from Brund’s grip. But Brund did not let go, and his grip was strong as steel. He seemed to be working himself up.
“I knew it! I knew you’d all be blind! Dierk with his wisps and you, Kordel, with your little clanking contraptions. Even Renna, dear Renna… don’t worry Kordel. Don’t fret so. I have seen it. Seen the end, seen the beginning, the beginning of the end. Not death, no, no. Not for us, thanks to me. Instead… Transcendence! A metamorphosis!!”
Again seemingly obeying the rules of drama, lightning split the sky again. For a bare moment, the blinding illuminated Brund’s recessed face. What he sawed chilled Quennus to the bone.
“My god, Brund… what happened to your hair? And your irises…”
Brund shrugged, supremely unconcerned.
“Metamorphosis is a process, Kordel. It is sometimes unconventional, but always vital. I thought you might understand.”
With a little bit of fear lending him additional strength, Quennus wrenched his arm out of Brund’s dead-man grip. Brund slowly reached up and pulled down his hood, revealing his alabaster pale flesh, his solid milky-white eyes. He smiled, and made that tittering sound again. A sharp shiver rippled up Quennus’ iron spine, and it had nothing to do with the cold.
“Now Kordel, move along. I really must show the others my work. My perfection. Especially Renna. She will appreciate it, I’m sure. It is time.”
He scratched his neck vigorously, and a patch of yellow-green skin came off.
Quennus didn’t know what Brund had been up to. Franky, he didn’t want to know. The professor’s semi-coherent words hinted and procedures best unknown. He was touched, possible dangerous. The sanitarium would be the right thing. And now, rather than later. Raising his hands in a non-threatening gesture, Quennus made one final attempt at peace, reaching for a spell all the while.
“Brund. I don’t know what you are up to, but I think it has adversely affected your heath. Let me get you to a laboratory, and we can take care of this…”
Brund’s eyes narrowed.
“No. I have work to do. Things are almost optimal. After tonight, they will be.”
And he rose into the air, revealing the true horror he had until then been concealing.
Brund had wings.
Four translucent dragonfly-like wings, beating with such speed that they were a blur. Only the droning noise and the fact that they held Brund 2 metres off the floor betrayed their presence. Brund hunched over double for a second, the straightened, shredding his heavy layers as he did so. His arms had transformed into insect analogues.
Quennus had seen many things in his life, and the ability of magic to twist and shape anatomy was far from rare. But Brund had really dived into the pool of transformation: his limbs were totally encased in a bristled exoskeleton, and his human five fingered hand had become a three-digit claw.
More worryingly, they weren’t his only arms.
A second pair of identical arms sprouted from his side, almost but not quite conjoined to the socket of his ‘natural’ arms. Free of the confining boots, his grasshopper-like legs waggled in the air. The metamorphosis wasn’t limited to just extremities: Brund’s whole lower body had deformed, fusing and lengthened into a plated thorax. He was more insect than man, only his upper torso and head still betraying his human heritage.
Seeing the airborne thing before him suddenly revealed in all its aberrant glory, Quennus bit back his initial instinct to scream. If he was lucky, the wind and the rain would prevent anyone from noticing, if he acted fast. He had to incapacitate Brund and get him off this roof five minutes ago. Avoid creating a panic.
He had a spell in mind, Quennus knew a dozen ways to corral a unruly specimen or threat into immobility. He couldn’t weave an arcane tapestry with magical threads and cords, but he could sure as silver truss up something like a turkey. Glowing azure geist-chains formed in his hand, identical to those used by Innistrad’s restless spirits. Quennus’ hand twitched, and the chains sailed out, wrapping Brund’s two left arms together. Quennus planted his feet on the stone and grasped the chain two-handed, prepared to reel Brund in.
“Professor, please understand! Don’t fight me! I know its hard to see, but this is for your own good!”
Brund replied by way of a screech. Something moved within his mouth that was not a tongue, and an ear-splitting unearthly chittering howled out, horrible in its volume and pitch. It was nails on a chalkboard, magnified by three. Quennus’ hands flew to his head to protect his internal ears from the din, and his spell lost cohesion with his loss in concentration, dispersing into mist. Freed, Brund shot forward with incredible speed, and Quennus was knocked flying with a single blow.
Quennus went sprawling, rolling over and over on the water-slick roof. Fortunately he wasn’t in danger of sliding off the roof, but it was inadvisable to be sent tumbling over and over when you have wings and pinions to protect. A chimney stack stopped Quennus’ momentum-laden tumble, and he stopped, gasping for breath and pain from his now-bruised wings. A scream split the air, and Quennus forced his head blindly up.
The scene was chaos. Members of the Progress Brethren ran pell-mell in panic, those that hadn’t been violently battered away by Brund. Smashed and dropped experiments flopped or twitched in their ruptured containers, milky preservative fluid mixing with the rainwater. Above it all hovered Brund, who had eyes only for his prey: Renna. The look on his face was alien.
As Quennus struggled to his feet, he saw as Brund swooped down lightning quick, snatching up the alchemist. Without a further word he flew off, the kicking and struggling form of Renna clasped tightly in two of his insectoid arms. A moment later Brund had disappeared into the storm.
Quennus stood with a wince, running a hand over his pinions, checking for damage. The metal components hadn’t been damaged, and the wire cabling fed through his muscle hadn’t snapped, thankfully, but the tissue was deeply bruised and would hamper his flying speed, not to mention be tender for some time. Time he didn’t have. Quennus didn’t know what Brund wanted with Renna, or if even Brund himself knew. Unlike most of the monsters of Innistrad, Brund didn’t necessarily want to eat his captive straight off, but that just made the possible alternatives even worse. There wasn’t much time. He had to know where Brund had gone, and he needed a weapon. Giving this to the Cathars was out of the question. If the Brund-insect could send Quennus tumbling with one blow, ordinary humans, no matter how trained, would be made short work of.
Quennus searched through his many pockets, pulling out a small bronze device and a whistle. He held the device up, waited till it had unfurled and activated before enunciating clearly.
“Investigator Hommel: This is Kordel. The situation has drastically deteriorated. Brund is to be considered armed and extremely dangerous. Think Skabb level dangerous. He has taken off and I need to know where he is, or where he would go to when fleeing. Please investigate his home, but use extreme caution and do not approach him under any circumstances. I shall pick up two pouches of gold and be on his street within the hour, be there and they are yours. Repeat: do not approach Brund. He is… not himself. Trust me. Kordel out.”
Quennus released the mini-thopter which, with its message recorded and recipient named, sped off into the sky like an extremely efficient homing pigeon. Quennus didn’t watch it go, he was already putting the whistle to his lips and blowing three sharp notes, then repeating the call. He was just stowing the whistle when a hand fell on his shoulder. It was Geistmage Dierk. His normally care-free face was split with worry.
“Kordel. That thing, that took Renna… it had Brund’s…”
“I know. It was him.”
“Avacyn preserve us….”
“Should… should we call the Cathars?”
“No. I’m going to take care of this. Go home. Stay indoors till sunrise. I’ll see you at the next meeting.”
Behind him, Quennus felt a disturbance in the wind as a great shape landed on the roof with not a little awkwardness just behind him. Dierk took a step back in alarm.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been training them. That being said, no sudden movements. Truth be told, my exhibition for this meeting was little lacking because I’ve been distracted. Good evening Dierk.”
Quennus turned to the adult drake waiting for him like a large very hungry dog. Quennus had been using Drakes on almost every plane he found them, the creatures were very trainable and fairly intelligent and reliable, if a bit vicious. The Nephalian Moondrake, he had found, was both tractable and powerful, and a full sized one like Neka, with a wingspan of an ox-cart, could carry him unaided. He expertly slipped into the hanging saddle harnessed under the drake’s stomach, and took the reins. He was about to signal Neka to take off when he saw that Dierk had sidled up to him, his eyes on the drake every hesitant step of the way.
“If you’re going after Brund, you might want to take these. I was going to show them off tonight. But that doesn’t matter now. They should prove helpful.”
Quennus took the proffered bronze orbs. Each orb had a small pin sticking out, and several tiny glass insets into them, from which green smoke steamed out.
“What are they?”
Dierk told him, and Quennus was impressed. Thanking Dierk, Quennus tugged gently on Neka’s reign, and a moment later he was airborne, flying out into the pitch dark Nephalian night.
Of course, lighting was a major risk, but there was nothing to do for that but hope. Lives were at stake.
*To be continued…
Part 2 is found here.
Magic the Gathehring fanfiction by Joshua Olsen