Temple of Epiphany, Polis of Arkhos, Theros
The stranger stood on a hill overlooking the temple, his worn cloak fluttering in the summer breeze. Of massive build, the stranger shrugged off the cloak, uncaring as the wind fluttered it away. With the cloak gone, the stranger grasped the massive double-bladed axe tied to his back and hefted it in one hand.
With a slow but determined stride, the stranger headed for the coliseum-like temple.
Ever since he had been visited by the vision a few hours ago, Oracle Relekos had been in a jubilant mood. He had a skip in his step, a hum in his voice, and he even had a few kind words to say for the novices when they made mistakes or posed poor questions, which was unheard of in recent times.
Of course, the acolytes and oracles were not surprised by the head Oracle’s good mood, all anyone had been able to talk about over the last few days had been the imminent arrival of the thief. After the theft in Meletis it had been realised that the old, almost forgotten prophecy had begun, and what to do next had caused much debate and consternation from speakers in all three polises. Some, mostly greybeards from Meletis, said that the prophecy could not be avoided, and that if it was stated the orbs would be taken, they would be, protections or no. Others of a more active view, mostly from Akros, decried this line of thought as cowardly, that fate was not a certain thing after all, saying that even those who dedicated themselves to the path of the seer could see only fractional glimpses of the future, frequently open to interpretation and prone to error. To give in without at least trying to avert the prophecy’s events would be shameful, they urged, and when the Akroans started to say the Meletians simply wanted others to be tarred with their failure to protect the orb, all parties reluctantly consented to move the orbs to somewhere where greater protection could be placed on them. The Meletians could always save it for an ‘I told you so’ later.
For a while the Orbs were kept on the move as a plan to protect them was discussed. Eventually Relekos stepped forward, claiming he had a foolproof plan to not only safeguard the orbs, but capture the would-be thief as well. The thief was prophesied to be of great power, so they would protect the orb with cunning. The orb would, to all public knowledge, be kept at the Temple of Triumph, but in reality it would be secreted at the Temple of Epiphany. Warned by the efforts of the oracles of Keranos, the warrior-servants of Iroas would wait for the thief to enter to claim the orb, and then ambush him. A foolproof plan, Relekos said. Certainly his idea found purchase with the council, for it was carried out.
And now, the plan was as good as done. Shortly after breakfast, Relekos scried, and after much contemplation and ritual, had the vision. Unlike the visions of the lesser acolytes and prophets, High Oracle Relekos could, with great difficulty, see events that would come to pass no matter what. And he was quite satisfied with what he had seen.
The oracle’s self-satisfaction was interrupted by a loud hammering on the temple doors. Instantly one of the acolytes went to see to it, but Relekos waved him down. In high spirits, he decided to see the visitor himself.
“I’ll get it, Lindos. Probably our colleagues with Iroas wanting to report how things went.”
Lindos nodded. He’d never heard the High Oracle refer to anyone outside of the temple as his ‘colleague’, but he was happy not to have to get the door. He scurried away to go about his duties.
Relekos went to the great bronze door, opening a slit to see who had knocked. He was greeted by a hooded figure, horribly hunched over and leaning on a walking stick.
“Let a poor old traveller in for a cup of broth?” the figure croaked. He must be quite old indeed, though Relekos, his voice is very raspy.
“I’m sorry traveller, but you seem to have confused us with the Temple of Plenty. We are more given to dispensing futures and fortunes than food. Would you perhaps like your future read, friend?”
The figure grunted, stepping in close to the door. “The future is not for seeing from afar, but from making happen with your own actions. I’ll pass. But I’d like to come in.”
Relekos bridled. Who was this unkempt beggar, to dismiss his powers and request entry? Ingrate! He would be sent packing, but first a little lesson in humility. Safe behind a thick locked door, Relekos saw no harm in giving the stranger a little haggle.
“Tell you what, if you can answer my riddle, stranger, you may pass….”
The stranger chuckled, the sound like the rasp of iron across a file. “Instead, how about you answer one of mine?”
“What is the correct answer to a barbarian’s riddle?”
Despite the siege-proof door between him and a hunched over person, Relekos began to feel something was wrong.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, how about this one: how much will it take you to give me what I want?”
The figure straightened, the hunch concealing a stature well over six feet. The figure reversed its grip on its walking stick, and now Relekos could see the double-bladed greataxe that had been rested head down and out of sight through the door slot.
The stranger stepped forward three paces, within touching distance of the door. His hood slid off, revealing the horror beneath: a head like that of a hydra, with a mouth lined with flesh-tearing teeth. Relekos’ eyes widened in panic.
“Okay, last chance. Here’s an easy one: what is one phrase all learned men should fear?”
The figure cocked back a fist.
Relekos turned to run, heard the figure speak.
The door to the temple exploded.
Chunks of masonry pelted through the air and dust billowed out in a choking cloud. Novices who were rushing to see to their Oracle were picked up in a great wave of force and scattered like leaves. Strident yells of confusion split the air, battling the sound of stone crashing. But it was the yells of pain that won out.
Relekos was on the ground, blood in his mouth. He spat it out, a great disgusting blob of the thick stuff. His head was ringing. The temple was under attack! Dimly, he was aware of heavy footfalls travelling through the ground to his ears. The thief was coming.
Groaning with pain, Relekos rolled to his feet. His left arm was unresponsive, until he slapped it. It wasn’t broken, just bruised to high heaven. He looked up, shaking his head to try and clear some of the disorientation out. He’d need a clear head to bring the wrath of Keranos on the vile cur that had attacked the temple.
He didn’t have to wait long. Out of the dust clouds stalked the bestial figure. Heavy shouldered and thick of chest, the lizard-man-thing spotted Relekos as he advanced. Sweeping its great head around, the thief took in its lack of opposition. Only Relekos barred its path. With an ever so slightly smug grin on its savage features the thief regarded Relekos.
“My name is Arrkas Zek, and I have come for the Orb. This is your one chance to give it to me without a fight. Fight and you will die. Any who fight will die. Stand aside.”
“My name is Relekos, creature, and you shall go no further. I will defend this temple that you seek to defile. I am the will of mighty Keranos in this world, and it is his will that you BURN!”
The creature that called itself Arrkas Zek responded with an animalistic roar. The great double-bladed axe cleared its back and locked into position, clenched tightly in arms not out of place on a Minotaur.
Relekos raised his arms to the heavens and prayed to Keranos. Unlike some of the other gods of Theros’ pantheon, a prayer answered by Keranos is clear for all to witness. From the clouds on a clear summer’s day sprang thick branches of lightning which leapt to the Oracle. A moment later he shifted his stance, his arms full of lighting, and threw them out at Arrkas, and the lightning obeyed his wishes and leapt at Arrkas. In response Arrkas barked out a guttural word of magic, a split second before he was engulfed with lighting. The bolts of furious energy played over his form like curious children’s fingers, prodding here and there with endless energy, but Arrkas did not fall, a blackened husk. Instead he levelled his axe, and a second later the energy burst from the axes’ head, the obsidian blade shimmering with heat. Forming a new circuit, the lighting obeyed its nature and continued on, raking the wall of the temple with its fury, gouging a furrow out of the stone. Arrkas stepped forward, first one step, then another, picking up momentum.
With horror, Relekos saw that the stream of lighting was heading for a cluster of acolytes picking themselves up from the floor. With a grimace, Relekos cut off his connection to the lighting, and the beam stopped, the acolytes unharmed. He turned back, and saw his attack had failed. Arrkas was smoking, his axe glowing red like the inside of the forge, and there was a slight limp in his stride, but he was standing. If he hadn’t been seeing it, Relekos wouldn’t have believed it possible. He reached for another spell, one that would once and for all stop the powerful brute-mage. He had just begun to construct a complex enchantment that would banish Arrkas to the night sky, where the gods themselves could pass judgement, when Arrkas shot forward. Too late Relekos realised he had let his foe get too close. He still had six words to enunciate when Arrkas lashed out with a fist.
The blow was true, ringing Relekos’ head like a bell. White spots exploded in front of his eyes, his legs turned to jelly, and the ground rushed up to grab him. He didn’t know what was happening until a huge hand fastened itself around his throat and tugged. That very quickly got his full attention. He couldn’t resist, not that trying would achieve anything by the feel of the iron fist around his neck. The grip tightened, cutting off his air completely with token effort, and Relekos began to struggle weakly. The huge head of Arrkas stared at his increasingly red face with interest.
“You think yourself a clever one, yes? My second riddle. Would you like to know the answer?”
Relekos could feel his bladder about to void.
“The answer to a Barbarian’s riddle…. is to choke on your on cleverness and die.”
Bile clawed in Relekos’ throat, and next thing he was gagging, stomach convulsing. The hand withdrew its grasp and Relekos vomited, his soup coming up and splattering the ground in a green pile. Gasping for air as the foul tastes assaulted his senses, Relekos reached deep inside himself for a small remaining scrap of fight, and found it. Sick still dripping down his mouth, he thrust a hand out and called to the lighting once more. But before it could come, a huge scaled hand slapped his arm aside, and then another crashed into his jaw. Relekos fell, but had scarcely touched the ground when he was grasped again by the neck and hauled aloft. He felt his feet leave the ground, held up with just one hand. This time Arrkas brought him up to eye level, staring balefully at him with a crimson eye.
“Your magic is worthless when you can’t think on it. Without it, you’re just a frail human. I could break you like you would break a wishbone.”
It was true: Relekos reached for his magic, but his head throbbed and the stench of his own sick made him light-headed, he couldn’t focus enough to grasp the complex patterns of words and thoughts. He couldn’t do anything. Not fight, not speak.
“This time, when I crush your neck, try to pass with a little dignity.”
And the hand began to tighten, cutting off his air once more….
The call of the young voice cut through to the scene, and with relief, Relekos felt the hand around his neck release its pressure, holding him firmly but allowing air into his lungs. It was Lindos, Relekos could tell from the tone.
“BACK OFF! Stay where you are or your Oracle joins the dead!” bellowed Arrkas. Hoisting Relekos aloft to face the acolytes and temple staff surrounding them, Arrkas shook Relekos like he was a newborn babe. “Tell them. Now!”
Relekos gasped, finally getting enough air to start breathing again. He was humiliated, held like a piece of limp game by this lizard-creature, his arm ached and his head screamed and he just couldn’t take any more.
“Stay where you are,” called Relekos, his voice brittle and weak. “Await my instructions.”
The ring of acolytes held position, each cradling a weapon of some kind, and looked on at their leader. Most were scared, but determined.
“So,” rumbled Arrkas. “You’re someone of importance. Hard to tell from your inadequate efforts, but I’m guessing you weren’t expecting me.”
“I don’t understand. You shouldn’t even be here. I saw it, I saw it, you were heading to the Temple of Triumph. My visions are never wrong!”
Arrkas snorted. “And it wasn’t. I was heading to the temple, walked miles and miles to get to it when I heard it was where the Orb was. But you scholarly types, locked away in your temples with your scrolls, you forget what the real world is like. You spend so much time thinking with your head you forget to think with your gut. The gut always thinks faster, and it doesn’t second guess. I went to go into the temple, but it didn’t feel right. Too quiet. Easy. Too easy. A trap. I was impressed, actually. But you can’t trap a hunter with such obvious bait. Instinct always knows. So I left. Came here. And well…. here we are.”
“You may have found the Orb, but the warriors of the Temple will know you’re here! They’ll be on their way as we speak, cut you to pieces. General Kalemne leads them, and she has never been defeated in personal combat! You will see!”
“Wrong again, Oracle. The Disciple of Iroas will be busy for some time, on account of the Hydra and Dragon I summoned to attack the temple. Even a Giant should be occupied with that for a while. Distraction is a simple trick, but very effective when you need time. Speaking of time, you are out of it. Your wall is breached, your ambush foiled, your reinforcements not coming. You know why I’m here, and what I’ve come for.”
With a contemptuous flick, Arrkas released Relekos, who fell to his knees. Arrkas crouched his massive form down to the small crumpled figure and cupped his chin with one talon-tipped finger.
“You know that I will do anything to get the Orb. I asked you three riddles, and now I have had to answer two of them for you. But only you can answer the last: ‘How much will it take for you to give me what I want?’ Your death? The deaths of everyone, every man, boy and elder here? Or will you be wise, and have no death at all? It’s up to you. Use your gift if you want, then answer the riddle.”
And he stepped back; left Relekos there prostrate in the dirt, and once again held his axe loosely. Slowly Arrkas panned and surveyed the perimeter of acolytes around him, meeting their looks of fear and anger with cool indifference. It was clear he considered none of them a threat, just obstacles to be broken though.
“You have until I count to thirty, or until one of them does something foolish.”
Relekos knew he didn’t have long, knew it probably wouldn’t work. It was a wonder he was still conscious, hardly the state to be attempting complicated magic. But exceptional times called for exceptional measures, and he had to know. Had to know more, couldn’t make possibly the most important decision of his life on mere fate. Pushing the pain and fatigue aside, blood dribbling from his nose, Relekos scried. The mortal world blurred away and he was confronted with his view of fate, the Weave. Each oracle and acolyte had their own individual perception of the metaphysical space where they could receive and interpret visions, and for Relekos it has always been a maze of stone paths, each branching off and combining in patterns far more complex than any human mind could conceive. Disregarding the grounding techniques that seers often used to make their journey safer, Relekos dashed off into the maze, seeking the thread of what would come. He started with the widest path, a great highway-sized space between two walls wide enough for a Cyclops to walk in either direction:
Arrkas Zek grasped the orange Orb of Warding he had come for, stalking back through utter devastation. Fires burned and bodies were piled everywhere, many in pieces. Relekos himself lay limp and broken against a stone dais, his eyes unseeing. Holding the Orb, Arrkas walked out of the temple’s broken perimeter.
No, that wouldn’t do. What else was there? Relekos branched off from the highway and moved into a new path, this one slightly narrower.
Arrkas tromped through a portion of collapsed wall, the Orb of Warding clutched under his arm. Thick black smoke billowed out from within the temple’s confines. Without looking back Arrkas stamped the ground with his foot, and the whole temple crumpled into a chasm in the ground, leaving nothing but a crater.
Worse. That couldn’t happen, mustn’t happen. Relekos dashed off that road, branched off into another, then another.
Arrkas, taking the Orb. Dozens dead….
Arrkas, taking the Orb. All the acolytes dead and the north wall demolished…
Arrkas, taking the Orb….
Relekos dashed down a hundred paths, twisting ones and straight ones, flat and elevated, wide and narrow. His path was erratic, swapping and turning almost as soon as he set foot on the current path. The details were different, the timings inconsistent, but the overriding sense of fate was the same: Arrkas would claim the Orb, and the more that stood in his way, the more bodies he would step over to claim it. Relekos had never seen a more persistent fate, a more inevitable conclusion.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he spotted one path that he had not seen before. It was narrow, so narrow the illusory sun did not reach down between the high stone. Moss grew heavily in the dankness. Without stopping, Relekos dived between the walls, shimmying madly between the stones. The vision came….
Arrkas was aloft, held for all to see in a cage of raw magic. Streams of mana from half a dozen mages kept it sustained, while the lizard-man screamed and howled in frustration, spitting curses and roaring like a hydra in inarticulate anger. The rage in his voice was terrible to behold. All around the temple looked like it had been the sight of a minotaur siege. Walls cracked, statues toppled, braziers spilling their fires everywhere. Lightning marks raked the walls.
Relekos saw himself, bruised but standing, leading the containment effort. Lindos jogged up beside him, staring at their captive.
“King Anax has been alerted to the capture of the thief, Head Oracle. He has put aside his other matters and will pronounce judgment tonight. He is sending an envoy of mages to assist with the prisoner’s containment, as well as his head warden, Hixus.”
“Very good. Gather all the able bodied, I want them over here as soon as possible. We need to move the prisoner out of sight. Perhaps that will calm him.”
The thrashing, howling figure was the last thing Relekos saw as the vision dissolved.
So it was possible: Arrkas Zek could be stopped. But the chance was so slim, literally (in a metaphysical sense). More a testament to the possibility of all things than a true chance. A joke of destiny. And if that chance fell through….. death and destruction was a certainty, most of it Relekos’. The Weave didn’t lie. All it told was the options. And options required a choice.
It was time for Relekos to make that choice.
“Twenty six…. twenty seven…. twenty…”
Relekos slumped as the world swirled back to his senses. He was disorientated for a brief moment as his earthly pains and ills washed back over him, but as unconsciousness nearly threatened to bowl him over he spoke.
“Stop. I have the answer to the riddle.”
“Good, you were almost out of time. Well?”
“The answer is…. nothing. Take the Orb, no one will stop you.”
Arrkas smiled. “Good. You are wise after all, Relekos the oracle. After all, a man cannot stand against a volcano’s eruption, no matter how proud or powerful he is.”
“Are you saying you are as powerful as a volcano’s eruption, Arrkas Zek?”
“No. But I could make nearby Mount Sulano erupt. Is that something you’d like?”
“No, no, I’ll tell them. Just, don’t hurt anyone.”
“I’m running out of patience. The Orb. Now.”
Relekos stood on shaking legs. He surveyed his temple brethren nearby, ready to lay down their lives to protect the temple’s property. A futile effort, it seemed. Relekos muttered a silent prayer to Keranos for failing him like this, then spoke in the biggest voice he could muster.
“Acolytes! Oracles! Stand down my brothers. I have been visited with a message from Keranos himself. He wishes an end to the violence. That none of us, his valued servants, may be harmed further; our ‘visitor’ may take the Orb of Warding freely. Do not stand in his way. Step back please!”
Slowly, with obvious reluctance, the crowd of temple-goers drew back like whipped dogs. They did not like what they had heard, but it had come from the mouth of their High Oracle, so who were they to argue?
“My thanks, priest. Where can I find it?” rumbled Arrkas.
“Behind the observatorium. There’s a pedestal.”
“Behind the giant bronze sphere, with the carved lightning. The Orb is by a small statue.”
Without another word, Arrkas strode off, the crowd of temple staff parting around the monster like fish avoiding a shark.
As Arrkas went to leave the Temple of Enlightenment he found Relekos, leaning on Lindos, barring his way. Arrkas put the butt of his greataxe on the stone, the pale orange Orb of Warding lazily winding its way around his brow. Arrkas looked Relekos in the eye, at ease.
“Are we going to have a problem?”
Relekos shook his head wearily. “You can go, but I have to know. Why only take one?”
Arrkas shrugged. “Out in the wild, amongst the trees, so deep the light of the sun can’t reach you, where you eat only if you can take a life; in that place, it is not your soul that allows you to see your next day. That is where I spend much of my time. The surest way to reach the next life early is to focus too much on it in this one. This Orb is the one of greatest use, so that is the one I have claimed. Better luck with the next one, Relekos.”
“After this, I don’t think the last Orb will be staying with me.”
Arrkas looked to the horizon. The sun was just starting to disappear behind the rolling hills, bathing them both in a soft glow. For a moment Arrkas was still. A force of destruction momentarily at rest. Then he gave a single shrug, so minor that Relekos almost missed it.
“That is the way of things.”
Without further preamble, Arrkas hefted his axe and strode forward. Lindos wisely shuffled Relekos out of the way. The massive barbarian walked away from the temple, and with the sun framing him, he might, under very different circumstances, have looked like a conquering hero walking off to his next adventure.
Relekos motioned Lindos to turn him away. He had a lot of work to supervise. And a lot of consequences to face.
“Relekos.” The deep voice shoved the peaceful silence aside.
“You have shown great wisdom today. Continue to be wise. Do not follow me. We won’t meet again.”
Relekos thought about responding to the departing figure, but decided his ego (and body) was bruised enough for one day.
Relekos almost motioned for some nearby acolytes to close the temple gates, when he remembered that there weren’t any gates anymore. He had a LOT of work to supervise.
Of course, when the famed soldier Kalemne and her personal squadron of Iroas’ most blessed soldiers arrived, fresh from defending their temple, the chase was on. They hit the trail as soon as some Thaumaturges could be rustled up to track the Orbs trace magic. The residents of the Temple of Epiphany, even the Head Oracle tasked with guarding the Orbs, told her to give it up, the thief was long gone, but she ignored their weak excuses. Still fired up from the thrill of the fight, the party took off into the nearby forest in pursuit of the thief.
Hours later, as the moon began to rise, the hunt was called off. The trail had abruptly cut off, as if the thief had simply disappeared. The Thaumaturges stammered about some kind of magical ‘imprint’ on a small area behind the web of a colossal spider, but could detect nothing of use. Even before the hunting party had been assailed by a surprisingly high number of monsters: giant spiders, gargantuan foxes and massive snakes with two heads that, strangely enough, were native a continent away. The creatures almost seemed like they had been placed as obstacles, guarding some location, but after the hunting party cut their way through the creatures, Kalemne always first into the fray, there was nothing. The giant raged and stormed, uprooting trees and widening whole clearings in her fury at being thwarted, but eventually the party had to turn back for Arkros empty-handed, the hero of no tales this day.
As for the thief known as Arrkas Zek, he was not seen again, nor the Orb he had taken.
Magic the Gathehring fanfiction by Joshua Olsen
Author’s note: Dear readers, the following was written as the sort of scene that you find in many action movies that introduce a bad-ass character. Imagine this piece as the literary equivalent to the scene in every Terminator movie where Arnie wipes out some poor biker blokes so he can acquire some clothing. As such, don’t expect any stunning philosophical discourses forthcoming. Do expect some good old fashioned carnage though. Enjoy.
Arrkas gasped, a pointed blade had just been forced between his scales and deep into his back from behind. Before Arrkas could do more than let out a howl, a shape was leaping onto his back, and to add insult to injury he could feel as a vampire’s pointed fangs bit hard into his neck, piercing the skin and draining blood. His blood!
Outrage cut the pain down to size, even as the sword-wielding vampire twisted the sword around in the wound. The second vampire clung tightly against Arrkas’ body, sucking his blood down as fast as it could. Cowards! Attacking him from behind! Arrkas grasped at the vampire atop him with his free hand, trying to grab hold of the beast and throttle it like a dog, but the creature was out of his reach and he couldn’t get purchase. “GET! OFF! ME! LEECH!” The vampire reared back with a hiss to avoid his arm, and lunged forward again at the wound, biting harder. A spray of blood spattered against the side of Arrkas’ head, coating one of his eyes. This was becoming problematic; he would soon weaken if he couldn’t get the vampire’s away from him. Bloodied eye shut, Arrkas waited agonizingly long seconds for the vampire to rear up again, seeking no doubt to tear his whole throat out this time. He snapped his tail up, smacking the vampire around the head and driving it forward. Arrkas then snapped his head back, smashing it into the vampire’s jaw.
Grabbing the stunned vampire by the head, Arrkas hurled it away, unconcerned with where the creature went, as long as it was off him. The sword wielding vampire had meanwhile twisted the sword in for all it was worth, rending the muscle. The sword was in deep, as deep as the vampire had been able to drive it, but that slowed the bleeding, the sword stoppering the puncture hole in Arrkas’ hide.
Exhaling hard and once again pushing the pain down, Arrkas spun around to his rear, sweeping his table-leg club at waist height, aiming for the vampire. The creature nimbly leapt back to avoid getting splattered, but was forced to leave its sword still embedded in Arrkas to do so. Arrkas followed through quickly, stepping in and punting the vampire across the room with a hooking kick. The vampire sailed across the room, but landed with perfect grace on the wall, sticking to it like an insect. It snarled, drawing a handheld crossbow. Arrkas reversed his grip on the table leg so it faced pointy end out, and he hurled it like a javelin. With an impressive thunk it impaled the vampire, pinning him to the wall through the torso. The vampire, held halfway up the floor by the table leg rather than its own magic, like some kind of hunting trophy, tried for several seconds to pull the improvised spear out of its gut before it coughed blood and died.
Arrkas turned, the other vampire was already standing. A few chips of rock lying on the floor betrayed where Arrkas’ wild throw had sent the vampire, but the bloodsucker appeared quite unharmed. Indeed, it was barely paying its adversary any attention at all, too busy licking up the Viashino’s blood that had spattered across its clothing and pale skin. Arrkas watched, mildly disgusted, as the vampire sucked its fingers like a man dying of thirst, running hands through its hair to try and find any stray droplets. Eventually it could get no more, and looked up at Arrkas. There was something different about its eyes, the sheer black was now flecked with a touch of gold.
“Your blood…..I’ve never tasted anything like it…..something in it…..so much raw power…..saturated with ancient magic. I must have more, NEED more of it!”
“What makes you think you can come and take it?” Arrkas snarled.
The vampire laughed, and picked up a heavy tower shield that had been knocked off the wall where it had been part of the Voldaren crest of arms. It was made from finest quality tempered steel and had taken expert forgers over 3 days of solid labor to craft, but that didn’t really mean much as the vampire bent it in half with its hands, tossing the folded metal aside. Arrkas wasn’t put on edge because of the feat, but because of how easily the vampire had done it. There had only been a modicum of effort involved, it seemed Arrkas’ planeswalker blood had a potent effect on a blood-drinking creature; it had absorbed some of his magic. Arrkas gave the vampire his best I-Will-Break-You voice.
“My blood stays in my veins leech. Now why don’t you scurry along and fetch the Count for…..”
He was talking to an empty space. By the planes, the vampire was fast. There was a flittering in his peripheral vision, and Arrkas’ head smashed into the floor, shattering floorboards. He lashed out blindly, but it was like striking stone, and then he was flying again, crashing through one of the few untouched pieces of furniture. His sword wound throbbed, and snarling Arrkas wrenched the blade out, bringing it around even as the empowered vampire came at him again. The vampire moved around the strike with ease, but Arrkas had anticipated such a move and curved the swing, catching his attacker in a glancing cut all the way along its arm, slicing through the expensive material. The vampire’s other hand came in palm-first, catching Arrkas in the temple, wrenching him sideways. By the time Arrkas righted his feet, the sword was no longer in his hand. The vampire hissed with hunger, snapping the sword in two like it was made of brittle candy. Even as Arrkas circled the vampire, wary of his foe, the deep cut to the vampire’s arm began to seal itself with empowered swiftness. When the cut receded the vampire gave Arrkas a lazy smile, arms extended as it circled him.
“Are there any more of your kind around? Your blood makes a human’s taste as ash-filtered muck, I fear it would be hard to go back to it after wrenching that delectable bounty from your veins.”
Arrkas knew the vampire was arrogant, drunk of its newly acquired power, but he also knew the danger of the situation. The other leeches were no match for him, but this one could be his undoing. For one thing, it was fresh and healthy, while he was wounded and fatigued. A situation that rarely went well for a fighter in the wild. He could Planeswalk away, but to flee from such a foe was not worth considering.
Besides, the vampire might be too fast to allow him to do even that.
Arrkas rolled his shoulders, trying to get the feeling back.
“You’ve only tasted my power creature. Your strength is not your own, and you shall not defeat me with it.”
“My god, you talk so slowly lizard-man. You talk slow, and you move slow.”
Then the vampire blurred from sight again, only experiencing it before allowed Arrkas to reach out and grab the vampire as it appeared in front of him as if by magic. He roared, slamming his fist into the pale thing’s face. When Arrkas hit things, they stayed hit. Especially a head shot like that. He pulled his fist back to hit again, to bash the thing’s brains out of its body, but then it wasn’t there, and he felt its fangs sink into his side, draining him. He went into a fury, holding the vampire tight and seeking to pummel it into mush, but his grips would only be there for a moment before it would twist out, and then it would lash out, draining him, slowly weakening Arrkas’ strength while it replenished its own injuries. He could never land a series of blows to stun or knock it off balance. After a few tense moments he grasped it again, threw it bodily away before it could escape, anything to keep it at arm’s length for a bit. The vampire cartwheeled mid-air, landing gently on the wall feet first, and easily flipped back to the ground without a scratch on it.
Arrkas was panting. The vampire was not. This was getting serious. The vampire wanted to spend all day dodging things? Well let’s see him dodge this.
With instinct born of years of practice, Arrkas momentarily let the reality of the world slip away. His injuries, outside noises….. both slipped away as Arrkas took hold of his connection to the land in this plane, and tugged on it, pulling mana to him. With a flash of green energy his forearms were sheathed in gauntlets of primal sorcery, tripling the size of his fists. Arrkas raised those fists up high, and as he did so time seemed to slow ever so slightly for him. He saw the vampire move into a sprinter’s crouch, about to blur towards him. It sensed something amiss. Too bad it was too late.
With the bellow of a man triumphant, Arrkas brought his fists down on the floor of Voldaren Manor.
The resulting tremor was felt throughout the whole mansion.
Windows blew. Paintings fell, and anything not bolted down rattled. The floor around Arrkas cracked, split and buckled, erupting out from the point of impact in an aura of destruction. A localized wave of seismic energy picked up the vampire and tossed him into the air, and it was as he was in the air that Arrkas leapt. No enhanced reflexes could aid the blood-sucking monster when it was unexpectedly airborne. Arrkas could see it twisting and flailing with his predator’s eye as it realized the situation. But there was nothing for it to grab or push off, all it could do was wait for gravity to kick back in and take it to the ground. Too slow.
Arrkas crashed into the leech mid-air, striking it like a piledriver and using his weight to bring them down hard. They came down amongst the shattered floorboards, Arrkas on top, the weight of his impact driving his knees hard into the vampire. It tried to buck him off, but Arrkas had all the leverage he needed now, pushing himself down against the prone vampire. He started to drop wild haymakers into its head, and at this close range there was no way to dodge. The vampire seized Arrkas’ body in two great handfuls and squeezed with the strength of desperation, fingers carving deep into Viashino flesh, but Arrkas was no youngling. The simplest way to alleviate pain was to bludgeon the thing causing the pain into submission, and that was what he did. His fists, bolstered by the enchantment, rose and fell in terrible rhythm, and then it was done. Bloody, injured, triumphant, Arrkas Zek rose from the crater and stood on cut and bleeding legs.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
He turned. At the furthermost entrance to the ballroom, some seventy strides away, was the Count. The master of Voldaren Manor was marked out by his aristocratic stature, his unequalled finery, and the aura of raw menace he projected. Around him stood at least two dozen other vampires, guards and high-born both, bedecked in armor and laden with rapiers, halberds, crossbows and other assorted weapons. The count lazily took in the scene of slaughterhouse carnage before him with cold fury, but he projected lazy amusement.
“Well well well. Most impressive stranger. If I had known you would go to such lengths to seek an audience with me, I might have reconsidered sending a carriage after all.”
Arrkas spat, blood and a tooth further marking the floor.
“I needed to talk to you. Not your envoys, not your lackeys. You. What I have to say is for your ears alone.”
The count spread his arms in an exaggerated fashion.
“Then by all means speak. Share your message. I hope you do not mind if my court listens in though, I like for them to see my lordly business at work. If they are lucky, they may even get to watch on as I make your death following this conversation a messy and drawn out thing. Or maybe I’ll just keep it private.”
If Arrkas was scared by the Count’s merciless words, he gave no indication. His voice was full of terrible severity as he looked the Count square in the eye.
“My message is simple: this is your last night in this world, alive or undead. You, and all the disgraceful whelps who reside here will die, and this monument to hedonism will burn to the ground.”
The Count laughed, his mocking guffaws soon joined by his assembled court. The very notion was preposterous!
“If you believe those words you are either a fool or an idiot. Your abilities in killing my most expendable brethren is impressive, but you are injured, and alone. You cannot hope to prevail. Kneel before me know, and I shall see you die with some dignity. Probably not your eyes or tongue, but some dignity. Your crusade is at an end.”
Arrkas grinned, exposing a mouthful of teeth to make any vampire jealous.
“Who ever said I came alone?”
Behind Arrkas, out on the balcony, a shape was stirring. A furred hand, hideously large, grabbed the balustrade, and began to haul a huge form over.
The Count’s grin shrank back by a few teeth.
“I’m sure you didn’t think I’d notice the wards over the perimeter, keeping out those you didn’t want in. But when I gained access to the grounds, I happened to leave the main gate open….. and the wards inscribed on them rent apart.”
More shapes were appearing at the shattered windows. First one, then two, then half a dozen. The vampire’s heightened senses began to pick up that which the rain had been keeping from them: the rank stench of wet fur.
The vampire contingent began to shrink back. The count’s formerly wide grin of superiority was now a grim slash on his face.
“That, and a full moon, is all it takes to get some of my hunting friends to come join me.”
The werewolves were now padding into the room, snarls etched on their lupine toothy snouts. Saliva dripped from their mouths as they salivated at the smell of all the fresh meat. The lycanthropes were massive specimens, scarred and lean and full of the bloodlust of the wild. Long had they wanted to get in and feed, but until tonight they had been kept out. Not tonight.
A wall of muscle and fur advanced slowly, with that kind of horribly delayed threat of violence that only a stalking animal can provoke. As the first werewolf, a massive coal-black alpha, went to walk past Arrkas it stopped, instinctively recognizing another predator’s presence.
“You see Count, you thought yourself the greatest power in these lands. Your first mistake. You thought you could keep the hunger of the wild at bay. Your second mistake. And you are wrong about one more thing: I’m not on a crusade.”
The aristocrats started trying to back away without attracting attention, while pushing forward the lower-born guards at the same time. The Count had drawn his own weapon, a great ruby-studded broadsword, but there was real fear fighting for control of his face, perhaps the first time it had ever done so.
“I’m on a hunt. And you are the prey. Run now. Or don’t, you’ll. Just. Die. Tired.”
And with that Arrkas gave a perfect wolf howl, and the tide of dark fur surged forward at his call like a breaking damn. There was a collective scream as the army of werewolves met the vampire lines with terrifying force, and the hunt began.
Author’s note: Dear readers, the following was written as the sort of scene that you find in many action movies that introduce a bad-ass character. Imagine this piece as the literary equivalent to the scene in every Terminator movie where Arnie wipes out some poor biker blokes so he can acquire some clothing. As such, don’t expect any stunning philosophical discourses forthcoming. Do expect some good old fashioned carnage though. Enjoy.
Perimeter of Voldaren Manor, Stromkirk, Stensia Providence, Innistrad
The two vampire sentries standing guard at the gate initially thought nothing of a single solitary figure out in the pelting rain at midnight. This was Innistrad after all, and even apart from vampires there were plenty of creatures of the night. If anything, it was something to look at; the two-vampire guard team wouldn’t be relived for another few hours at least. But when the figure approached them through the rain, the mist parting to reveal its identity hidden under a shabby billowing cloak, the guards exchanged looks of relaxed interest. What was this decrepit peasant doing out at such an hour?
“Can we help you?” One of the guards said in a tone of barely-concealed disdain as the figure drew in close.
“I seek an audience with the count.” The cloaked figure rasped.
A grimace came over one of the guard’s flawless alabaster faces, his grip on his halberd tightening. “The Count isn’t seeing any one right now, there is a party going on at present. And even if there wasn’t, he still wouldn’t be seeing the likes of you, day or night.”
The hooded figure hesitated. “I must insist that I be permitted entry.”
The other guard stepped forward, a snarl on his face. This one clearly didn’t get it. “You’d best move along, human. Our palates are far less discerning than our master’s.” He placed a palm out, intent on pushing the peasant away.
Before he could connect, the hooded figure’s arm shot out with remarkable speed, grasping the guard around his helmet. The figure’s arm was huge and covered in scales like a snake’s; the hand almost covered the helm entirely. As the other guard looked on in shock, the grasped guard let go of his halberd, letting it clatter to the cobblestones as he reached up to try and break the grip with both his hands. Amazingly, he couldn’t.
“I’m not a human,” rumbled the figure, and began to squeeze.
The guard instantly began to scream and struggled much harder as the helm swiftly began to buckle under the pressure. Despite his heavy bronze helm and the vampire’s frantic struggles to break the grip, it took the hooded figure only five seconds to utterly crush the guard’s helm (and the guard’s head inside it) like a stale biscuit. The figure let go, and the dead vampire instantly fell to the ground. With a growl, the hooded figure took a step forward, towards the manor’s gate.
The remaining guard stepped to bar the figure’s path with a snarl, baring his pointed fangs in anger at his comrade’s death. Whoever this thing was, it had just earned itself a one-way trip to a shallow grave. Grasping his halberd in a two-handed grip, the guard stepped one pace forward, swinging the axe head in a controlled sideward’s chop. The figure swayed away from the attack, but not enough to stop the blade from landing a glancing blow to its shoulder area. But instead of an arc of blood, there was instead a grating sound, and the figure remained standing, leaving a deep gash through his cloak where the blade had punctured it.
With a snarl the figure lurched forward, the cloak rippling. It grabbed the vampire by both shoulders, picking him up and slamming him against the manor’s exterior wall hard enough to crack the stone. The guard struggled, like his partner before him instinctively dropping his weapon to try and break the grab. It was useless.
“Weak,” The figure spat in contempt.
Pulling them both away from the wall, the figure changed its grip, sliding the struggling vampire bodily into an underarm position as though the battle-armored guard weighed no more than a kitten.
“His strength must be enormous,” thought the guard in panic.
Grasping the vampire guard firmly, the figure rammed the vampire head first into the stone wall like he had a battering ram and was trying to break the wall down. The impact was unheard by any of the denizens of Stormkirk in their beds, as the heavy rain and crackle of thunder muffled the sound.
After the first impact the vampire gave a strident “NO!” after the second there was a gurgling “Please…..”, and after the third there was silence, as the vampire’s head had messily disappeared.
The figure dropped the twitching, now headless body carelessly onto the street, surveying the mess he had made of the guards. Feeling the large cut in his cloak with a clawed finger, the figure shrugged it off, revealing underneath a stocky well built Viashino, his Wurm-hide armor marked by a deep cut to in the shoulder.
As the cloak fluttered down the empty rain slicked street, Arrkas Zek whispered a spell, causing thorny vines to burst from the nearby shrubbery and rend the heavy lock on the Manor’s gate into fragments of torn metal. Arrkas pushed the gate aside, leaving it wide open. Tail twitching from the cold, Arrkas started up the stone drive that led up to Voldaren Manor.
*** *** ***
The party was in full swing inside the Bloodhall. Vampires, in revealing clothes that defied Stensia’s chilly climate, swanned about the chamber their behavior a mixture of chatting, floating above the ground and swilling glasses of the finest vintage human blood the Voldaren’s had on tap. From a few rooms over a five string band played, the music gently wafting over to the party room to the clinking of glasses and gossip dishing.
This atmosphere of refined breeding and fine arts was abruptly ended when a thumping and crashing echoed along on the second floor balcony. One of the vampire higher-ups, floating several meters up in the air where it conversed with others of its kind, pointed to the balcony, surprise written over its heavily-made up features.
“My word! What is that….?”
As the others in the room turned to look, perhaps thinking it was the evening’s entertainment; a burly shape ran and launched itself off the second floor railing. Roaring incoherently, it crashed into the pointing vampire lady, and pushed her underneath its bulk as they fell. With a crunch that buckled floorboards the reptilian gatecrasher landed vampire-lady first on one of the human “blood banks” collared around the room, pulverizing the unlucky vampire and human under his hard impact. As the vampires throughout the room dropped their glasses in shock, Arrkas Zek straightened up from the gory crater. He spread his arms wide and eyed the nearby vampires with battle lust.
“COME ON! WHO WANTS TO GO FIRST!” he bellowed in challenge, goading them.
The vampires hissed in rage, lips pulled back and teeth bared like a pack of hungry wolves. Under all their trappings of finery and class, under all the silken clothes and elaborate titles, they were just as much an animal as Arrkas was. They just couldn’t accept it.
As one, the Vampires from all across the room rushed at him, arms outstretched and sharpened fingernails glinting.
“THAT’S RIGHT! IMPRESS ME!”
Arrkas waited till the last second, and spun around low, tail and fists whipping out. A dozen or so were bowled over with the wind taken out of them, and Arrkas plowed into the others still standing. A wide haymaker punch took out three vampires with the crack of bone, but gave another a chance to close in. The vampire unleashed three lightening-fast jabs, and Arrkas grunted. The fourth punch didn’t land as Arrkas grabbed the offending limb and bit through it with one snap of his crocodile-esque mouth, his razor teeth neatly snapping through bone. Pushing the screeching one-armed vampire away Arrkas snatched another in his hand, marveling at the ease with which he was able to snap the creature’s neck.
Arrkas had run into Vampires on many planes, they seemed to be one of the multiverse’s consistants, like Elves and Goblins. But of the many varieties he’d faced, the Innistrad breed had to be amongst the weakest. They had only double the strength of an ordinary human. Weak. Hardly worth the effort.
“It’s not the most worthy of hunts,” thought the big Viashino as he let one strike a solid blow to his jaw, just to keep things interesting. The uppercut did stagger him, and the vampire who had dealt it leapt forward, keen to press his advantage now that he mistakenly thought he had Arrkas reeling. “but there’s certainly something to be said for outlasting an entire hoard of combatants, of pitting the quality against the quantity. How many Innistrad Vampires is this Jund Viashino worth?” Arrkas mused as he sharply elbowed the advancing vampire dead on, a spray of blood arching past his smiling face. “40? 150? More even?”
Already the Bloodhall was living up to its name, littered with injured, unconscious, dead and dying, and yet more and more vampires surged into the room. God, he loved a challenge. Blood pumping, muscles brimming with energy, Arrkas roared as a Vampire Lordling flew at him, hovering at head height. The Lordling’s feet lashed out like vipers in a series of controlled kicks, forcing Arrkas to cross both his arms to block the worst of the onslaught. The Lordling’s speed was certainly greater than Arrkas’, the Viashino giving ground as he tried to find an opportunity to counter-attack. Arrkas chanced a glance behind him, seeing that he was being backed up against the manor’s wall. The glance cost him, as the Lordling finally penetrated Arrkas’ defense and cracked him around the head with a sweeping kick. The Lordling was too fast, his movements like quicksilver. He couldn’t keep up his defense, it wasn’t working anyway. So Arrkas fell back on a combat trick he had spent his life honing: “If you cannot hope to dodge a blow, grit your teeth and take it. Just make sure to hit the other guy back harder than he can hit you.”
The Vampire hissed with glee as it launched a low kick, dropping a few centimeters to make sure it ducked below his foe’s blocking arms, and this time Arrkas took it without retort, huffing as air left his lungs but nevertheless reaching out and seizing the Lordling’s leg. “ENOUGH!” he raged, swinging the Lordling through the air by the foot and slamming it into the wall like it was a bat. The resulting snap told him that that combatant would not be getting up, perhaps ever again.
After the example he’d made of the Lording Arrkas wouldn’t have been surprised if the Vampires had fled Voldaren Manor for their lives yet, but it was not to be. No less than four Vampires closed in on Arrkas as one, using the combined momentum from their charge to force the Viashino up against the wall, pinning his arms back.
“Quick, finish the beast off! Now, while we have him!” called one Vampire.
While the two burly males each kept an arm pinned with both their own, the two females moved in for the kill: one producing a jeweled dagger, the other using her sharpened finger nails. Growling, Arrkas headbutted one as she closed in, pitching her backwards with a smashed nose. The arm holders redoubled their efforts to immobilize Arrkas, pushing his arms back against the wall as hard as they could. The female with the sharpened nails lunged in, and Arrkas stopped trying to free his arms. Trusting to the strength of the vampires holding him, he launched his legs up, snapping them around the female vampire’s midsection and drawing her in. With a flex of his powerful leg muscles, honed by rigorous workouts just for such an unlikely occasion, Arrkas snapped her spine. The look of shock on her face, frozen in the moment of death, was something he’d remember for some time.
But Arrkas didn’t have time for that right now, he had to get the two vampires off him, before more came in to take advantage of his grappled position. Turning his head to look at one struggling vampire Arrkas drew in a great lungful of air. The vampire grinned.
“What are you going to do? Blow on me?” he smirked.
Arrkas bellowed, releasing a primal roar primarily intended to generate noise right next to the vampire’s head. The vampire screamed in pain, his hands flying up to cover his now bleeding ears. Vampires had superhuman hearing, but such sharpened senses were vulnerable to being overloaded, a fact Arrkas knew from countless hunts. One arm now free, Arrkas ignored the deafened Vampire stumbling around and grabbed the remaining Vampire by the neck, spinning once and using the momentum to throw him bodily into a nearby fireplace. The vampire’s fine silk garments caught ablaze in an instant, and the vampire’s writhing form disappeared in a ball of fire.
The deafened vampire was stumbling around, trying to quell the ringing in his head. Like a shell-shocked soldier he gave no thought to his surroundings until he felt Arrkas’ huge presence looming up behind him. The vampire turned to face the threat only to receive a knee to the gut, knocking all the wind out of him. Thus winded, he was unable to dodge as Arrkas’ tail swiped out, sweeping his legs out from under him and sending him crashing to the carpeted floor. “One all-natural remedy for an earache, coming up leech,” chuckled Arrkas to himself, and he stomped hard, collapsing the vampire’s cranium like a dried out bug.
The room was finally empty of vampires. Well, living ones at any rate. Arrkas cracked his neck, taking stock of his body. He couldn’t feel anything of concern, though he’d have bruises the next day. Putting a hand into his cavernous mouth, Arrkas felt around gingerly. A second later with a slight grunt of discomfort, he’d snapped off three teeth loosened in the fight. He’d grow new ones in a few days.
Arrkas looked around, scanning to see if there was anything he could use as a weapon. Fighting bare-knuckle against these vermin was fun and all, but Arrkas knew the Count would be a far greater challenge. He needed something that would complement his reach, but which would shatter into a good sharp point after a few solid swings…..there! One of the lavishly ornate chairs had splintered during in the fight, and an off table leg lay apart from the rest, one end reduced to a wicked point. It would make for a fine stake. Arrkas stomped over to the chair, reached over and picked up the leg. Good, it was heavy and solid, well weighted for swinging and……