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
The Oracle sat upright, her eyes white and unseeing. She had been blessed with a prophecy from Kruphix, the God of Mysteries. The Oracle spoke in a voice not her own, and none of the attendants could fathom the meaning behind her words.
“In time, three strangers will come to Theros. A scientist of great intellect, a barbarian of great power, and a cursed traveller, possessed of great darkness. All have come for one piece of three, the Orbs of Warding. Gods will rail and heroes will stand before them with all their courage, but all efforts to stop them shall come to naught. This I have foreseen and this shall come to pass.”
At first, the attendants were worried. The Orbs were well known, wonders given by the gods to mortals. But as the seasons passed by one after another and no sign of the strangers came, those who knew of the prophecy began to relax. This, of course, was a mistake.
Temple of Enlightenment, Polis of Meletis, Theros
The port-city of Meletis was bustling, filled with throngs of humanity going about their business with industry and purpose. Nets full of fish were hauled in, stone was shaped, and prayers were offered to the gods for a sunny and productive day. Through all the hustle and bustle strode Quennus in one of his guises, this one a human with coppery skin and violet eyes. His face concealed behind a hooded cloak, the crowds parted around Quennus like fish avoiding a shark, partly because of his size and partly due to the subtle magic he used to prod them aside. Coming to one of the main temples located bayside, a shining edifice of polished stone, Quennus slipped around into an alley out of sight of the main crowds.
The only door into the temple was locked and barred, but Quennus whispered a quick spell and his form turned to water, flowing through the bars before reforming into solidity. Quennus looked at himself. Everything in one piece, no lingering after-effects, no transmutation sickness.
“Theros may not have much to teach in the way of metalworking, but their familiarity with enchantments is impressive.”
Guise back up, Quennus calmly strode further into the depths of the temple, discreetly checking each room for his target.
They found him in the temple’s most sacred room, following a trail of open and unbarred doors and up to his arms in the magical safeguards protecting the Orbs of Warding. The defences were active, a storm of glowing sigils surrounding the thief. Every few seconds a bolt of azure energy would spark from the mass of symbols, mental spikes designed to confuse, shock and swiftly incapacitate a thief.
But they weren’t working, the intruder grimaced with each hit, but kept working, his arms waving a complex dance as they struck each symbol just after it discharged and deactivated them. In a few moments the entire enchantment shut down with a crackle of static, and the intruder rose, noticing the guardians. Rather than appearing fearful or concerned by the armed solider and the robed thaumaturge, the intruder smiled.
“I know, I know. Not my best work. A bit sloppier than what I’m happy with, but it got the job done.”
The soldier stepped forward, partially shielding his companion. Quennus could see this was a well trained move borne partly out of tactics and partly out of compassion.
“Thief. Before you stands Melind, hero of the Bloodskull pass, slayer of the giant Arakanos, champion of Ephara, and protector of this sacred temple. Surrender now, and you will lose only your freedom, and not your life.”
“Fascinating. I mean, I didn’t ask for your name, or your life’s story, but thank you I suppose for supplying them anyways. And no, I will not be submitting to imprisonment, though your intent is admirable.”
Melind frowned. He was, as Quennus would later journal it, a “remarkably robust human specimen”, even his frown caused muscle to shift. Clearly speeches like the one he had just delivered rarely failed to cower the audience into a pile of writhing hysteria. It didn’t take a sage to figure out who were the brains of the outfit. As if on cue, the thaumaturge poked his head out from behind the barrel chest of his protector, speaking slowly as if to a child.
“Are you saying that you haven’t committed a crime? If you believe so, we can arrange legal representation for you at your trial, but you should know that even if you are stealing the orbs for someone else, that is still against the….”
“Sages. They always think they are the only ones with more than half a brain.”
Quennus’ guise tightened its lips in frustration.
“No you idiot,” Quennus cut across with a snap. “I’m not denying the crime, I’m stating that your jurisdiction doesn’t apply to me. I’m from further away than your little mind can comprehend, your polis, your gods, and your laws don’t apply to me.”
Both guardians bristled.
“What makes you think you have the right to take the Orbs?”
“What makes you think you can take the Orbs?”
Quennus smiled, unhurriedly cracking his neck in a sideways neck twist reminiscent of an owl. Rather than the click of bone popping, there was a clacking as if of metal falling into place.
“I could list you at least seven reasons why I am taking an orb: you don’t know how it works and I do, I have greater need of it than this temple, what is the point of a powerful artifact locked away out of sight, the list goes on. But you are just attempting to stall me until reinforcements arrive with that famous Meletian rhetoric. I shall not be stalled. And you,”
Quennus spoke to the hero now.
“I will be taking the orb. You can try to stop me; no doubt you feel you must. But we always have a choice. Free will is important. You can choose to walk away now, with your legend and accomplishments intact. Or you can choose to try and stop me, but I warn you that you will fail. The choice is of course yours.”
Melinds’ meaty hands swiftly unstrapped a pair of solid bronze knuckle dusters from a sling on his belt, deftly strapping them to his arms.
“My left has felled a cyclops. My right has slain a giant. And I bring both to every fight. What makes you think you can stand against me?”
These were no back alley cutpurses ‘dusters, but finely wrought weapons of war, heavily constructed for maximum damage and studded on the knuckles with corpse-coins. Not exactly subtle, but then as Quennus watched the burly hero run straight at him with a blood-curdling battle cry, he reminded himself that he wasn’t dealing with a subtle man.
Melind was still a significant distance away when his partner waved his arms, clearly casting a spell. Quennus tensed for a attack, but a quick reading of the energy the thaumaturge was calling to him suggested a simple piece of battle magic, so Quennus let it complete uncontested. Melind suddenly leapt into the air as though fired from a catapult, crossing the distance of the huge inner sanctum in a heartbeat. With an incoherent roar he swung, his metal-clad fist crashing into Quennus with tremendous force.
It was indeed a punch mighty enough to feel a Cyclops, and yet Quennus did not fall. With a crackle Quennus’ guise was dissipated by the hit, but Melind hadn’t noticed, as he was trying to bludgeon Quennus into paste. A series of blows rained down on the Aven, each forcing him down. In the background he could hear the sonorous chanting of some kind of prayer coming from the thaumaturge, but there wasn’t time to pay that mind.
After four hits Quennus got the tempo of the guardian’s assault and surged up before he could make his fifth hit, shooting a palm into the hero’s thick chest. The piston-driven strength of the shove forced Melind back, and as he righted himself he saw what he was really facing. Which is to say, a half-machine avian humanoid. A distressing sight to say the least, especially when even regular avian humanoids didn’t exist on your world.
Quennus had over a long career of planeswalking noticed that there were many responses by natives when they discovered a visitor not native to their world or ecology, but most were just variations of a few base emotions. Quennus had predicted that due to his aggressive tendencies Melind would skip over fear and continue in aggression when confronted with the unknown, and as the swiftly drawn shortsword swished at his heart, he knew that once again fate did not have any surprises in store for him. The thrust was true, with a steady arm, but Quennus saw it coming and thus managed to deflect the blade’s point away from his more vulnerable area and into the right side of his chest, where the blade wedged into Quennus’ metallic sternum. As Melind tried to extract it, Quennus reached out and grasped the hero’s forearm in a grip of (literal) steel. Melind reversed his stance and tried to force the blade in deeper for lethal penetration, but with inexorable force Quennus pushed the arm out, extracting the blade. Now there was real fear in the would-be hero’s eyes.
“What are you?” he whispered.
Quennus tutted. “A great many things. Most relevant to this situation, the inventor of Stymphalian Bronze. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
The guardians had. Stymphalian Bronze was a newly created metal, said to be stronger than any before it. It has been created only a moon ago by a reclusive blacksmith of no renown. Word around the polis was that the blacksmith had refused to credit Purphoros with either the inspiration or knowledge to create the super-metal, and the god of the forge was said to be incensed by the slight.
“So, I can see you have, and I don’t need to explain to you that all this sword waving is worthless against someone whose is literally made of the stuff. You’re welcome for advancing all of metalworking knowledge by the way. If your forge-god was so mighty, then why does he allow you to putter around with bronze still? So primitive. But, I’m getting distracted.”
With a slight straining, Quennus hefted Melind bodily across the room to crash heavily to the ground, his knuckle dusters throwing up sparks they grated along the floor. This cleared the thaumaturge to fire the spell he had been holding back while he waited for a clear shot. The power of the sun burst forth from his hands in a blinding beam, transfixing Quennus. Instantly the planeswalker felt even his hardened metal components begin to melt and what diminished feeling he still had told him his flesh was blistering. This was beyond the thaumaturge’s normal ability, Quennus sensed an immense power emanating from the human, power not his own.
“That explains the chanting,” thought Quennus, as his wings snapped out, and he took to the air, anything to get the beam of sunlight off him. Swiftly though the beam tracked him as he weaved, glancing across his wingspan a few times and threatening to knock him from the air, but Quennus spat out a simple sleep spell learned in his youth.
Overcome with magical exhaustion, the thaumaturge fell to hands and knees, fighting the magic, and was able to raise a glowing hand to Melind, casting one final spell before slumping over. Now glowing white with the thamaturge’s magic, Melind rose, his fists crackling with solar energy. His confidence was back, and he looked ready for round two.
Quennus was not in the mood for round two. He didn’t know how much time he had. The attention of Ephara’s guards he could handle, but the reason he had been forced to leave Theros was because Purphoros was hunting for him. The real, tangible gods of Theros, much like the existentially-circumspect, distant gods of other planes, were an arrogant bunch, and did not kindly suffer ‘mortals’ to gain fame and renown without paying tribute. Quennus had refused to do so with his creation of Stymphalian Bronze, and now the minions of the forge god were also hunting him. He had to get the Orb and be gone soon.
“Enough. The gloves are coming off.”
Quennus waved his arms, arcs of power flying from his gestures in waves that filtered across the room. They passed through Melind without pause, sinking into the stone. The hero recovered from his flinch; plainly expecting some kind of attack. He saw that Quennus’ eye, the non-metallic one, was a brilliant sapphire orb without iris, whereas before it had been hazel.
“What have you done? The gods will protect me from your power, and with the blessing of Heliod and Ephara, I can strike even you down.”
“Perhaps you can, hero. But I think you will be too busy making a choice. Observe.”
Melind turned, and gaped in astonishment as an acolyte from the temple marched in. His eyes glowed the same shade of blue as Quennus. He was followed by another acolyte, and then a member of the public. More came. In a moment Melind was surrounded by a crowd of acolytes, priests, and petitioners to the temple three dozen strong, all with glowing eyes and all paying the guardian not the slightest bit of attention. They stood in ranks like soldiers, their expressions vacant.
“Hop,” spoke Quennus, and in complete unison, the crowd hopped on the spot.
Melind shook one of the people, trying to get a response out of them, to no effect.
“What have you done to them? They are bewitched!”
“You are familiar with the Sirens of your world; it is similar to their vaunted songs. These people’s will is mine to control for the moment. And this brings us to the question of choice. Hold him please.”
Suddenly, Melind was seized by a forest of arms, which held him tightly but gently.
“In a moment, I will instruct the crowd to retrieve the Orb of Mind Warding for me. They will hand it to me, and I will escape, the Orb my prize. You can of course stop them, so fascinated they are not capable of putting up much of a fight or moving with much speed. But they will not stop command unless killed or horribly injured. So hero, a choice: do you allow a thief to get away with stealing the Orb you have been sworn to protect, or do you stop me, at the cost of the health and lives of the very people who declare you a hero?”
Melind strained against the crowd holding him, spittle flying from his mouth.
“You bastard! You speak of choice, and yet this is what you do!”
Quennus raised a finger, shaking it once left right in a mechanical movement.
“A common misconception. You always have choices. That does not mean you always have good choices. Sometimes free will means choosing your damnation. That I leave in your hands. Now, Therans, retrieve the Blue Orb of Warding, and hand it to me. The rest, form a perimeter around me.”
As one, the crowd moved in perfect formation, circling Quennus, then locking arms in a ring of bodies. The few holding Melind released him, and moved without urgency to the altar of Ephara, where the Fabled Orbs of Warding lazily orbited. Each was about the size of a pair of clenched fists, and trailed thin white vapor as they moved. One was pale red of a blood-moon, the other a bleached orange, and the third a sky blue.
Quennus studied Melind intently as with slow inevitability, the entranced Therans walked over to the Orbs. The shortsword was in his hand, and he was watching the Therans with an intensely pained expression, a man torn between two ideals. Sweat had broken out on his head, and his body shook with nervous energy. His gaze was riveted on the Therans as they began to climb the dais to the altar.
Suddenly, like a bowstring breaking, Melind shot forward, sword raised and a cry partly borne of hysteria on his lips. He gave Quennus no mind, heading for the altar. Meanwhile, the entranced citizens silently formed a group allowing one of their number to be hoisted up. The young boy, no more than twelve, reached his arms out, waiting as first the orange, then the red orb wafted by.
“I have no need for further physical protection. And the soul, a debatable concept at best, the purvey of clergymen and poets, neither reliable sources. No, the mind is the one treasure worth guarding.”
The boy snatched the Blue orb in his hands, and with only small resistance pulled it out of its magical orbit. As he clutched the orb to his chest tightly and was lowered down, Melind was crossing the distance quickly. The two were on a collision course.
The child walked forward, flanked by the mesmerized adults. Their blue eyes were locked on their master, oblivious to the armed man charging at their ranks. With a cry Melind burst amongst their ranks, hurling the adults aside like a enraged rhinoceros. Shaking, sweating, a man possessed, Melind raised the short sword. He paused for a fraction of a second, his conviction wavering. As all moments of life-changing importance tend to do, time played out a little, making the moment seem like a lifetime. Out of the corner of his eye, Melind could see citizens start to rise. In a moment they would be on him, either attacking or in his way. He had to choose now.
The blade began to descend.
Internally, Quennus sighed. His left hand wiggled slightly where it was.
And the child turned to face Melind, looking directly up at him with those blue eyes. The Orb was held to its chest protectively, like a doll or stuffed sheep.
The blade, full of terrible, life-taking power, crashed into the floor, lodging in the stone. A second, Melind fell to his knees.
“I can’t….. no… I can’t….” he sobbed.
“Because you are a good man.” Spoke Quennus, not unkindly. “A flawed man, to be sure, but a good man in your heart.”
The child turned from Melind, placidly walking over to Quennus as if nothing had happened. Around it, the citizens stood, but stayed where they were. Melind was unmoving, whatever fight he had within him extinguished.
“You win. Just… take it and go. Be gone from here,” whispered Melind, not looking at Quennus.
The crowd parted, and the boy handed the Orb to Quennus, who took it with a metallic hand. Scrutinizing it for a moment, Quennus nodded in satisfaction, and the Orb took to the air to begin is orbit around the Bird-Mage. Quennus clapped once, and the bewitched people fell gently to the floor, in a deep sleep. Quennus shot an arm out, catching the child as he fell, gently lowering him to the ground. They would all awaken soon, no worse for the experience.
From within his cloak Quennus withdrew a small scroll, sealed with bronze and tied with gold thread. He tossed it, where it landed next to Melind.
“I am leaving Theros. Do not look for me, I won’t be found. When I return, if you are still alive, I shall find you, and give you the choice to try to and exact whatever revenge you think you deserve. Whether to take it or move on is up to you. You should know, I leave behind a number of trinkets and ingots of the last of my Stymphalian Bronze, as well as instructions on how to create more. The location is on that map.”
Quennus extracted a small, clicking cogwork device from within his cloak, and threw it to the ground. It burst in a shower of sparks, releasing the energy within, and with a whisper from Quennus to shape the unbound Aether, the energy formed into a swirling blue portal. Quennus mad to step through, but at the last moment stopped, and turned to regard Melind. The Meletian was watching him with a mix of amazement and fear. Perhaps he was considering his own failure or that perhaps the gods he had known all his life were not the only beings of power.
“The metal could be put to good use for the people of Theros, if you decide to share it with them. I now have confidence that you will make the right choice for them, and not for yourself. Farewell, guardian. Better luck with the other orbs.”
Then Quennus stepped through the portal and was gone.