*Part 2 can be found here.
Outside Selhoff city limits. Somewhere in rural Nephalia
1:58 since first contact
As he so frequently was, Hommel had been right. Quennus had little trouble finding Brund’s secret purchase. The barn sat forlorn and abandoned on a fallow field overlooking a greasy-looking river. Some way away, a small farmhouse was returning to the earth, racing the unploughed fields. A quick flyby betrayed no presence of any living things in the field or farmhouse, but that the farm itself was sealed up tight, and had been carefully maintained just enough to keep out the weather, but not enough to look anything other than abandoned. He had the right place. Quennus considered using the roof to gain access, but discarded the notion as he had been lucky with the storm thus far and this was no time to push his luck.
Quennus landed before the great doors. Nothing for it but to open them. Quennus took a deep breath, slowly releasing it to calm himself. He hated head-on confrontations, they were so… uncivilised. Still, nothing for it, he had no idea how much time he had. Renna might well already be dead. He really hoped that wasn’t the case. The Ashmouth blade now in hand, Quennus gently braced his feet and slowly shunted one of the doors aside, slipping in as soon as there was enough room for him. He left the door open a crack in case he needed to make a quick escape.
It was dark inside. Warm too, and the air was still, pungent. Something like compost, earthy and cloying. Quennus stood still, letting his eyes adjust, getting a feel for the place. A moment of analysis could save a life a hundred times over. The interior of the barn was riddled with workbenches and large pieces of equipment. A few concoctions burbled away in tubes, and moths fluttered around the hazy air, but otherwise everything was quiet. Steel cables strung around the roof occasionally crackled, some sort of power system providing energy to a series of barely-there glowing orbs. A particularly impressive surge gave brief illumination to some huge canvas-covered mass, most likely a shipment of straw kept safe from the rain. Carefully Quennus cast a spell to render his clanking body much quieter, and he began to stalk through the interior. No sign of Brund, or Renna.
A gentle clinking of chains got Quennus’ attention, and he looked over to what must have been where Brund kept his test subjects, before he turned to experimenting on himself. A number of iron cages of various sizes were hung from chains. One of them had been broken open, and its interior was filled with some kind of organic mass. It was fibrous, something reminiscence of a spider’s webbing, though slimier and more lattice-like. Poking from the mass was Renna’s head. Whatever the stuff was, it had stuck her to the wall. She wasn’t awake, her head limp, crimson hair falling over her face.
Quennus approached, heart in his throat. Was she unconscious, or….
“Renna. Renna, wake up. It’s Kordel. Give me a sign that you’re alive.” Quennus’ voice was quiet, quiet enough to not be heard over the background noises of the barn. He hoped.
At his voice, Renna shifted, just the smallest amount. She moaned but didn’t open her eyes. Still alive, thank God. Quennus manipulated his artificial hand, replacing a number of his finger tips with surgical-quality scalpels. He began to gently saw at the tissue entrapping Renna, ripping sodden masses of the stuff away with his natural hand.
Renna didn’t respond further to his whispers or attempts to shake her awake, and he didn’t fancy his odds of carrying her out of her, so with a moment’s hesitation Quennus administered a measured slap to Renna’s cheek. As paradoxically was the case with the crudest of techniques, it worked a treat. Renna awoke, her eyes widening in stunned disbelief. When she spoke, he words were undeniably slurred.
“Kordel… what are you… never mind. You have to get me out of here. Please.”
Even in the midst of such circumstances, Quennus cocked an eyebrow.
“Why do you think I’m here, dear? It’s not for the ambience.”
“You have to hurry. Brund is here. He injected me with something… burning in my veins… he just kept saying ‘must make more… must make more…’ oh God, he could barely speak, his mouth was so distorted. He’s…” her voice broke with a hitched sob. “My body itches everywhere; my stomach is doing constant somersaults. What’s happening to me?”
“Renna, I don’t know. But I think you’re smart enough to suspect. The important thing is we get you out of here. It took Brund weeks to transform; you’ve only been exposed a bit over an hour. We’ll get you to my lab, and between the two of us we are going to fix this. You’re going to be okay, understand?”
Renna took a few deep ragged breaths, calming down somewhat. Eventually, she nodded.
“Good, now hold still. I’ll get you free. Where is Brund?”
“After he stuck me in here, and gave me whatever the hell he’s on, he seemed tired. The flying took it out of him. And he was twitching a lot, some kind of spasm. I don’t know where he went…. oh, Avacyn, preserve us.”
Renna was looking at something over Quennus’ shoulder, her face stark with horror. Even as he turned, Quennus could hear a squelchy sound coming from behind him. Movement had dislodged the tarp on the far side of the barn, revealing a fleshy lump the size of an ox-cart. The lump was lit by a slight yellow glow from within, and as they stared at the rocking mass, the imprint of a limb stretched the membrane of the thing. It was not a bale of hay.
A cocoon. A quote from Brund’s logbook floated through Quennus’ mind.
“Metamorphosis is a process…”
With effort, Quennus forced himself to turn away from the writhing madness behind him. Adrenaline blazed through his system, and he shoved his fist through the goo like a shovel through earth. Gripping Renna tight, Quennus braced and heaved. Pistons and iron whirred as Quennus leveraged his strength against the cocoon, and as it often did, iron won out. With a sucking sound Renna was heaved from her prison. Behind him, the sound of ripping flesh intensified as Brund pulled himself from his cocoon. Quennus clapped Renna on the shoulder, pointing to the barn door, the only escape route.
“Renna, RUN!! Get out of here! Get to my lab! I’ll meet you there!”
“Are you crazy? What about you?”
“I’ll hold him off! Go, NOW!”
He shoved her away, heard her footsteps as she dashed for the door. Good, he had bigger things to deal with. Literally.
With a final violent thrust, the cocoon split in two, disgorging the creature that had once been Professor Brund.
The Brund-thing must have been 8 feet tall, maybe 8 and a half. Arms that once bore fingers now ended in mantis-like pincers, and the body was a gross swollen thing, totally encased in a hard exoskeleton except for a few patches of softer-looking lattice-like growth. Huge fly-like wings sprouted from the back, twitching and buzzing as they shook off the fluids of its rebirth. But most ghastly of all was the head. Three compound eyes, so black they almost looked like scooped-out cavities, fixed on Quennus, and mandibles clacked in hostility, or perhaps just base hunger. Perhaps there was recognition in those eyes, but there was no way to tell. There was nothing human left to see. A nightmarish maw of clacking teeth, seemingly stuffed in a hole of a mouth with no care for order or jaw structure, clacked and drooled. The creature rose up to its full height and extended its limbs, screeching like a banshee.
Quennus didn’t wait for the Brund-thing to make the first move: that would be a mistake. To humanize Brund at this stage would be fatal. Quennus had come here to make sure Brund’s madness harmed no others, and to do that he had to put down the beast the man had become. The Ashmouth blade was in his hand. He could feel its power streaming out of it like heat from a forge. Quennus tensed to spring forward, the attack order in his mind… when Brund hit him like a sledgehammer, sending him flaying across the room. With a tremendous crash Quennus slammed into a table, sending papers and vials flying. It had been a long time since he’d been hit that hard. Brund was strong. Still he’d faced strong opponents…
A huge blur appeared before him, accompanied by the sound of buzzing wings. Before Quennus could even move, a pincer claw came down, aiming for his face. He barely managed to twist to the side, and the claw punched through the table right where he had been, turning the wood to splinters. Okay, so Brund was fast too, freakishly fast. Brund tried to pull his limb back out, but it was stuck in the table. Now was his chance. Quennus lunged forward, slashing the Ashmouth Blade in a wide strike once, twice. Wide gashes appeared on the dead-flesh coloured exoskeleton, and Brund reared back with a screech of pain, pulling his trapped arm free in the process. Quennus leapt up and followed his foe, his blade weaving a razored pattern through the air, giving Brund no chance to get his bearings. The huge insect danced back before the assault, far more nimble than its huge size should have allowed. It was like fighting an elf, a elf with the brute strength of a enraged ogre.
Still, the fell enchantments of the Ashmouth Blade allowed Quennus to match his foe’s dexterity, and he pushed ahead recklessly. Eventually the Brund-thing was too slow with its retreat, throwing a distracted jab with a claw. Quennus twisted, metal screeching as the chitinous talon scraped off his Mizzium-plated shoulder, and he slipped inside Brund’s gangly reach. The Blade whipped forward stinger-point first, stabbing into one of the fleshy lattice-growths on the Brund-thing’s chest, and sank in with almost no resistance. Quennus gave a roar of triumph, and pushed harder, forcing the blade in to the hilt. His foe went still, its movements losing animation as it looked down at the weapon buried deep within it as if surprised. Quennus wrenched the blade free, red-black blood spurting from the gaping wound. He waited, waited for the monstrosity to keel over and pass on from its cursed life. It wasn’t happening. With a horrible stunned realisation Quennus gaped as he saw that the bleeding from the grievous wound had already stopped. The flesh didn’t heal, it just sealed up, leaving behind angry, red-raw but sealed flesh. The other cuts had also already done likewise, barely penetrating the tough exoskeleton. Brund’s transformation hadn’t just enhanced his strength and reflexes, but his physiological resilience as well. He’d just shrugged off multiple longsword strikes, including a total impalement.
Brund lashed out with another ear-rending screech, two arms like serrated steel bars smashing Quennus. He rolled backwards with the impact, coming up onto his feet, just in time to take another superhuman blow. Now it was Brund who pursued, pummelling Quennus in unmistakable rage. Two blows were absorbed by mechanical parts with little damage, but one limb punched just right, breaking two ribs. Quennus gasped with pain, tried to get back, but another heavy limb swung, lacerating his side before he could leap away. Quennus reached for his weapon, anything to ward off his attacker, give him a moment to get his bearings, then realised that the Ashmouth blade wasn’t in his hand. Brund’s grasshopper-like legs launched his swollen mass into the air, and then those legs were kicking out like twin pistons. Stars burst across Quennus’ his natural eye and his mechanical replacement’s vision scrambled as well. His vision was gone, but physical sensation was all too present as he crashed off several all-too-hard surfaces. Quennus could taste blood, and the several parts of his body still with feeling were starting to regret that.
Quennus half stood, his legs wobbly, threatening to fail him totally. He leant on a heavy desk for a moment, then gripped the desk hard. With a yell of exertion he whipped the desk up, throwing it bodily at Brund. That should slow it down. A split second later Quennus bit back a curse as Brund charged into the flying projectile, bursting through it in a shower of timbers, apparently unharmed. He came forward again, and Quennus reacted on instinct, throwing a hand out as if that could stop the charging monstrosity. Thankfully, being a planeswalker meant that sometimes that worked, and a hurriedly-cast cantrip saw lengths of spectral blue chain leap out and ensnare Brund. Quennus lurched forward, stumbling for the Ashmouth blade. He hadn’t made it more than a few steps before an unearthly wrenching occurred and Quennus stared in horror as Brund snapped the immobilizing spell holding thing, rupturing the bonds of magic like a dog shaking off water. A sinking feeling in his stomach, Quennus reached for a more powerful spell, one to stop Brund for good.
The time it took Quennus to search his mental repertoire was an eternity for a creature with the speed of Brund. Quennus had just started to reach for the mana to shape the magic when Brund hit him with the force of a rhino, the momentum forcing Quennus off his feet and down into the dirt. Metal strained under the force and Quennus felt his lungs squash in as Brund pinned him to the ground. Then Brunds’ nightmare of a face was descending. Foul breath assaulted Quennus’ nose, rotting vegetation and something spicy. Brund was salivating profusely, drool spilling from his maw of interlocking jaws and mismatched teeth. Quennus turned his head to avoid the sight…. and saw that the force of Brund’s tackle had pushed them quite close to the Ashmouth blade. Within arms reach as a matter of fact. Too bad Brund was about to chew his face off.
Quennus thrust an arm out, trying to ward off the monstrosity just above him. Bad move. With a tittering schreech that maybe, maybe, was chuckling, Brund lunged forward, engulfing Quennus’ arm in its mouth up to the elbow. It felt like he’d put his arm in a box full of daggers. He could actually feel a rhythmic rolling as Brund chewed his arm, the stabbing wave of agony rolling around as the muscles shifted. Screaming as the pain ripped through him, Quennus managed to somehow snatch up the blade and stabbed widly, desperate to bring an end to the agony. The Ashmouth blade stabbed deep into the side of Brund’s jaw, and it reared back, swatting at the blade left embedded. Quennus rolled, scrambling to get out from under Brund. His organic arm (why did it have to be the organic arm? Stupid! Stupid!) was shredded, thankfully not broken but every impulse sent to move it returned signals of fiery pain. He managed to stagger to his feet and forced himself to run, run for the barn door.
Brund was too much…too tough, too fast, too strong. Quennus couldn’t defeat him this way, he wasn’t some damn warrior-hero. He was more of a spy than a soldier, and even soldiers couldn’t stop this thing. He had to escape, recuperate, get away. Panting, sides killing him with spikes of pain, arm a brutalised mass of torn tissue, Quennus heard Brund’s fly-wings starting up again. Instinct told him to turn around, but he ignored it, and concentrated on running faster.
Quennus burst out of the barn into the rain. Into the fresh air, the blessed sky. He leapt, snapping open his wings midair and flapping with all his might. They caught, lifting him, but the effort caused a groan to escape the aven’s beak. He had never been a particularly strong flyer, and the evening exertions (and substantial injuries) had taken it out of him further. If he could just get up high enough, he could lose himself in the storm clouds. Not an ideal spot, but probable death was better than certain death.
Flapping madly, Quennus swiftly gained height, leaving the barn behind. Rain pelted his face and lightning crackled through the sky, too close for comfort, but with each flap the ground receded and a sense of calm started to settle Quennus once more. Reading the clouds as only a native to the skies could, Quennus angled his flight, drifting between the colossal shapes of storm clouds to a position of relative distance, and therefore safety. Now he had a moment to think, to plan a move. Quennus let out a deep breath and weaved a spell of summoning, reaching out for a familiar signal of metal and magic. A moment later, the Ashmouth Blade appeared in his outstretched hand and after inspecting it for a moment, Quennus sheathed it. A shame to leave such an intriguing piece of work lying forgotten in the mud. He’d look over it in time. But first…
Quennus extracted a small ticking cogwork device, turning it over and finely manipulating a number of small hinges and levers. He’d get back to his lab and cure Renna. Then, they could plan something to deal with Brund. No doubt between the two of them they could figure out what to do about…
The attack was shockingly sudden.
Brund crashed into Quennus, knocking him from the sky. So much for hiding in the clouds. Brund could not only fly, he could fly fast, those sets of fly-like wings beating the air in a droning hum. Quennus tried to open his wings to arrest his fall, but a searing pain greeted his efforts and his wings snapped shut in involuntary response. Instead, Quennus pulled his wings in close and tucked in, letting gravity take over, streamlining his profile to drop. He could hear Brund screeching somewhere behind him in manic anger, and then the dreaded whirr of his wings and as Brund pursued him. Too fast to escape, even if he could fly. Just too much. Everything, too much. It was a race to see what would reach him first, the ground or Brund. Quennus found the choices on hand unappealing and decided to take a third option.
Still freefalling, Quennus’ fingers danced over the controls of the trinket, readjusting his jump. He didn’t have time to focus on a proper Planeswalk, there were too many distractions going on and he might be killed before he could make it. Thank God he didn’t only rely on natural processes to get things done.
There. The device was set, a simple cantrip and he would be in Tarkir. A safe place to recuperate. Then he could come back and deal with Renna.
Quennus pulled his arm back to throw the device. All he had to do was throw it below him and then fall through the resultant portal. Easy. Quennus cocked his arm back…
With a crunch, Brund crashed into him once more, sending the trinket spinning through the air. It spiralled off course for some distance before breaking, releasing its load of energy and creating the portal to another plane. Except now Quennus was not going to get to it. Being a transporting rent in space, the portal didn’t fall, but hovered where it was, stubbornly refusing to bow to gravity’s laws. The same couldn’t be said for Quennus. In mere moments he would fall past it, and then that would be it.
Brund was locked in close, the slight disorientation from colliding with a moving target all that stopped him from attacking Quennus any further. That wouldn’t last. Quennus turned from the portal to look Brund in his what-passed-for-a-face. He felt as if he’d been fighting Brund forever.
“Bugs shouldn’t try to pick on birds,” hissed Quennus, lunging forward. His silver-plated beak stabbed right into one of Brund’s eye pits, the resulting foul taste that filled Quennus’ mouth almost made him vomit. Brund was trying to push himself away to address the issue of his ruptured eye, and Quennus assisted, flexing his legs and pushing off his attacker like he was a springboard. Brund was launched away as Quennus briefly leapt up, but it wasn’t going to be enough to reach the portal. Close, but not close enough.
He could hear Brund’s wings kick in again. In the space of a fraction of a second they headed his way with alarming speed. With a pained cry, Quennus forced his wings open, fought through the expectant surge of pain, and forced his battered wings to flap once, twice. That was enough.
Somewhere within Ojutai territory, Plane of Tarkir
Suddenly the rain was gone, and the cold, and the lightning. Bright sunlight and birdsong replaced it. That and solid ground. Quennus rolled end over end with his sudden change in orientation, shedding his falling momentum on sand. Something big crashed into the ground somewhere near his position. Quennus didn’t try to fight his tumbling landing. He’d severed the portals’ connection to Innistrad the moment he’d made it through. He’d only risk further injury fighting his roll. Better to just let it happen.
Eventually his world righted, or at least stopped spinning. Quennus lay there a moment, enjoying the simple pleasure of the feel of sun seeping into his flesh. Then he heard the rasping. Quennus’ snapped open his eyes, sitting up, already alert for a threat. He was reaching for the Ashmouth Blade when he spotted the source, and he stopped.
The Brund-thing had been so fast, so determined, that it had pursued Quennus even as he made his escape through the portal. Well, most of Brund had.
Like a beached whale, roughly half of what had once been Professor Brund lay beached on the sand. The closing portal must have trapped half of Brund in Innistrad and half in Tarkir. Amazingly, he was still alive, though he looked like he wouldn’t be for too long. Steam wafted from the point of bisection and a tangle of bizarre organs had slid out to stain the sand in a slowly spreading island of black-purple ichor.
Quennus stood and took a careful step forward, wary of approaching too close. Brund was writhing feebly. He no longer looked like a monster on the rampage. Now he looked like all creatures did when close to death; feeble, afraid, and alone. Despite it all, Quennus felt a stirring of pity for Brund. This was not an enviable way to pass.
Brund seemed to notice Quennus, stretching out a deformed insect-hand. The gesture was unmistakably human.
Slowly, Quennus drew out the Ashmouth Blade. Brund’s eye-pits followed the motion and his mouth parts moved slowly, eventually speaking in raspy, agonized, yet just intelligible english.
“My work… my progress…”
“Your work made progress, professor. But it came with at a price, a price no one else is going to be forced to pay. It’s not worth it. It was never worth it.”
The Ashmouth Blade lanced out. One strike, clean through the head. Surgical in its aim. Brund fell, stone dead.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
Wiping the sword on the sand, Quennus stood.
He spent the next two hours at that secluded cove, summoning some basic constructs to dig a deep grave in the beach. Eventually, when he had finished rudimentary repairs to the damage to his wings and chest, Quennus clapped his hands twice and the constructs tipped the bisected corpse in. In moments it was covered in sand, buried so deep that no one would ever find it. Some things were better off never being, and if they did, then buried so deep no one would ever know of them was a close second.
At last, as the sun began to sink below the horizon, Quennus was ready. This time there was nothing to interrupt his artefact toss, the portal opening once more on a world wracked with black skies and heavy rain. His wings were stiff and sore but they would do the job. Quennus dived through the portal back to Innistrad. In twenty minutes he was approaching Selhoff. His dwelling was there to greet him as he glided in, a small stone tower sequestered on a sparsely-populated street, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the town centre. Making his final approach Quennus could see a figure winding up the road. A gust of wind knocked the wearer’s hood off, revealing rain-slicked crimson hair. Renna.
As the alchemist approached his tower, Quennnus neatly landed behind her. Reactivating his guise of Kordel the Cryptic, Quennus hailed Renna as she was about to knock on the door. At once she spun, child-like relief on her face. Without a word she sprinted through the rain to him, almost knocking the air from his lungs as she wrapped him in a wet but welcome hug.
“Oh Kordel… I thought for sure I’d never see you again! I should have stayed, but I was so scared. What about Brund? Is he…”
“He won’t be hurting anyone again. The less said about it, the better.”
He knew of course that she’d have questions, many questions. But those would come later, once they had gotten inside, warm and safe.
Quennus stroked Renna’s head, did his best comfort the traumatized young woman.
“Easy now. You’re safe. It’s all over. Let’s get inside and take a look at you. No doubt it will be a simple matter to undo whatever has been done to you. But first, I think a pot of hot tea and a warm fire to drink it by would hit the spot.”
“That sounds lovely.”
“After you, my dear.”
Holding the door open for Renna to scurry inside, Quennus stopped on the threshold looking back out over the landscape of Innistrad. The plane was currently painted with dark shades, lashed with cold rain and biting winds, lit only by the flickering illumination of lightning. For a moment Quennus pondered the horror and grim nature of his night. Out there lay many dangers – many would not live to see the sunrise.
Before these dark thoughts could take hold, Quennus shook his head and turned his back on the world outside, instead focusing on the warmth, safety and company of his home. He’d earned a quiet night in.
Magic the Gathehring fanfiction by Joshua Olsen
*Part 1 can be found here
00:48 since first contact
Old Rutstein was one of Innitrad’s most successful traders, his range of shops numerous beyond any of his competitors and variety of wares diverse almost beyond reason. Whether you wanted a high-quality silver-edged axe (Kessig store, dangling in the front window) or a cursed urn (Nephalia store, collecting dust on the third shelf from the back), one of Old Rutstein’s stores had it.
Rutstein, despite his advanced years, travelled nearly constantly between his stores, slowly but surely winding his way across all the major population centers of Innistrad. Fortunately for him, he was on a carriage to Stensia that night. Fortunate not because he was in any danger of marauding insect-man hybrids flying around, but because Quennus had decided to pay the Selhoff store a visit after hours, and was not in a diplomatic mood, nor a mercantile one.
With a wave of a hand, the metal lock on the front door reformed into liquid slag, dripping down the door and onto the cobblestones. With no lock, the door swung wide open in the storm winds. Quennus strode inside with purpose, forcing himself to scan the shelves methodically. Normally one of the view-sets in his mechanical eye could discern magic in objects, but in Old Rutstein’s store the whole place radiated the stuff.
Impatiently Quennus stalked the isles. “Come on. There must be something…”
He avoided coming into contact with a serrated handaxe that was somehow still dripping blood, and covered around the haft with some sort of organic web-like growth.
The large ornate knife studded with gems was similarly a bad idea. As his hand moved to close around it a kind of far-off drawn-out howl slashed into his mind. The hand was swiftly retracted.
And on the top shelf, there was a genuine looking spellbook, covered in purple symbols and held behind a sealed glass dome. Quennus went to investigate extricating the book, but merely looking at it filled his mind’s eye with visions of such cruelty and spite that he hurriedly threw a cloth over it.
“Something that won’t try to kill me or suck my soul out would be nice! Is there anything here of use?!” ranted Quennus in exasperation.
Outside, completely unconcerned with the frustration of a planeswalker, the storm clouds shifted aside for a moment, letting pure moonlight filter down into the window of the shop. At the same time, the bells tolled sonorously to signal midnight.
With an abrupt screech a small unassuming shortsword, long-held in a glass display case, let out a burst of raw power, shattering the glass of the display case with concussive force. Baleful azure energy wafted off the thing, and the lanterns around it jittered in their frames. Cautiously, Quennus stepped forward, wary for some kind of attack.
“I remember you…”
He’d seen the dusty thing a few days ago while shopping in disguise. Rutstein had clearly been trying to part with some of his more unappetizing merchandise and had twisted Quennus’ ear for some minutes on the supposedly storied history of it.
“There is rich history in a blade like this,” he had spieled with a conspiratorial wink. “Its previous owners had some stories to share, I’m certain,” he had added.
At the time Quennus had dismissed the tidbits as salesmanship. It seemed he was wrong on this occasion.
Running his hands over the blade, Quennus marveled at the workmanship of the thing. It was ornate, clearly intended for some kind of special purpose. Sapphires winked in the hilt and metallic demon heads had been wrought into the steel, their engraved faces now glowing blue with power. The blade had lengthened by several centimeters, and had warped into something more akin to a barbed stinger. The differences were more than just steel-deep, the blade was suffused with fell magic. A quick probe revealed that dire curses and dark deeds had been lavished upon the sword at times when the sun was not out to unbind them, and at night they activated, making the small sword a more potent weapon than any greatsword. After taking a moment to make sure that the inherent sorceries were designed to cause harm to the wielder’s enemies and not the wielder, Quennus took up the Ashmouth blade, unsurprised that it felt as if it had been forged specifically for him. He gave the sword a few experimental swings. Perfect balance, and it seemed to zip through the air with supernatural ease. Which, thanks to magic, it probably did.
“An exquisite piece of quality. I knew you wouldn’t let me down Rutstein.” Quennus conjured a scabbard to hold the sword (it didn’t seem wise to grip it any more than was strictly necessary) and moments later he was out in the rain again.
“Now, Brund, where did you get to?” Reins snapped lightly, and Neka took to the sky once more.
1:21 since first contact
The street was filled with a heavy silence as Neka came in for a landing. Brund’s residence was a compact little two-storey wedged between an inn and an apothecary, open to a claustrophobic cobblestone alley. Quennus had expected his contact to be waiting for him on the street, but only the plinking of the rain greeted him. Hommel shouldn’t have been hard to spot. Innistrad bucked the trend that suggested that cities never slept, once the sun went down the streets were basically deserted. Drawing the Ashmouth Blade, Quennus patted Neka three times, an instruction that he was done and she could go. With an affectionate chirp, the moondrake took to the air and in moments was gone. Now Quennus was truly on his own, and already he missed the company of another living creature. Slowy, cautiously, Quennus advanced on Brund’s house. He could see through the gloom that the front door was open, swinging back and forth in the storm wind.
“Investigator, are you there?”
“Investigator, its Kordel. If you’re there, answer me now.”
Still nothing. Was that a rustling, somewhere behind the door?
“Hommel, damn you! Hommel, answer me now!”
A floorboard creaked from within the dark depths of the house, the sound distorted by the distance and the storm winds. Quennus’ pulse spiked, his heart thumping in his metal-plated chest.
It was time to act, that’s what he’d come here for; not to be hissing at what was probably a horribly mutated Brund. With a surge of adrenaline, Qunnus lurched into a wound-up kick, belting the door open with force. Quennus sprang into the room, whirling around, scanning for threats. It was pitch-black, but there was a light source coming from the stairs….
“It’s a good thing you’re a genius, Kordel, because you wouldn’t make it as an investigator. You’re about as quiet as a werewolf with a stubbed toe.”
The light resolved itself into a middle-age man with a prominent nose, dressed in well-made clothes and bearing a heavy iron lantern. A superior smirk was on the man’s face.
Quennus let out a sigh of relief, shearing his sword. “Hommel, you’re a sight for sore eyes. I thought I told you to stay outside.”
Hommel shrugged, unconcerned. “There’s a mystery to be solved, Kordel. I’ve skirted around it for months, keeping on the edge, following your instructions, observing and reporting only. Well now, something big is going down, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.” Curiosity blazed from him like a palpable energy.
“Fine. Let’s get to it. I need to know where he is.”
“Way ahead of you, come on up to Brund’s lab. It’s… informative. You’ll want to see it.”
The pair snuck up the stairs, the feeling that they weren’t supposed to be there present in every breath, every step. The attic was cavernous, containing bookcase after bookcase filled with ancient tomes of magic and workbenchs covered with experiments. Quennus immediately hustled over to a gigantic desk, assessing the papers and books strewn haphazardly.
Brund’s deteriorating state of mind was evident in his everywhere. This wasn’t how labwork was supposed to be conducted – precise, ordered, and controlled. This was messy and haphazard, sweat-stained and hurried. Not how any laudable science was meant to be. Quennus rifled through the stacks of papers, each one adding a piece of a puzzle that no man should want to solve. Hommel was meanwhile checking out the textbooks on the closest bookshelf.
“The Mechanics of Insect Politics… The Metamorphic Imperative… Theories of Cross-Species Trans-substantiation…, geez, this guy wasn’t working with a full deck of cards, was he? What the hell was he trying to do? ”
“The problem wasn’t him trying. It was in him succeeding. I don’t know what lore he was following up, but it has to be…. ah ha!”
Beneath a stack of papers there was a small leatherbound tome, full of diagrams and text. Brund’s research log. Eagerly Quennus flipped through it. Entries, each an all-too-brief flash of insight into a dark and twisted mind, leapt out at Quennus.
“Entry #1: I have had a dream…for a work that, if it is realized, will revolutionize how we live our lives. I am eager to begin at once…”
Quennus flipped through; there’d be time to scrutinize this book cover to cover later, right before he burnt it all to ash.
“Entry #43: How my test subjects scream and howl as I refine the procedure! If only they could understand the importance of what I am doing…”
“Entry #78: Unfortunately, all my test animals have died or escaped, so I shall be the final subject. I feel no fear. This is a momentous night.”
Shortly after this entry, the neat handwriting began to become more scrawled and messy.
“Entry #113: The end result is…. Unexpected, but I have made progress. It is only now of course that I realize that the project is not yet done. Metamorphosis is a process…”
Quennus flipped to the end. The final entry was dated just last night, barely recognizable as written english.
“Entry #147: All that is left is to share my findings with others. I know just the person subject…
I Have awakened from the falsehood that is humanity”
That was it. The rest of the book was blank, though spattered with stains, some sticky to the touch. Quennus snapped it shut, looking up for Hommel. When he did, he noticed that the orange glow from the lantern had obscured the moonlight filtering into the room. Filtering in from a huge hole in the wall where once a window had been. Whatever had left the laboratory had been too big for the window, and had made its own exit to the outside world. Violently.
“Avacyn preserve us…”
“Even Avacyn might have trouble with the thing that did this. Has to be at least seven and a half feet tall, based on the dimensions of the hole. Tough-skinned too, I’d say.”
“Why do you think that?” mumbled Quennus distractedly.
“Not think. There’s a clue. You gotta learn to look for clues. They’re always there.” Hommel pointed. Quennus followed his finger to the edge of the hole, where a piece of skin hung from a piece of splintered wood. The skin wasn’t soft and malleable, but hard. Quennus snatched it and pocketed the evidence.
“You’ve done great, Hommel, premier work as always. Here’s the extra gold I mentioned. And now you need to forget this.”
“Kordel, be reasonable. This case…”
“…is not your concern. Believe me when I say, for you, the case is over. If you knew what I knew, you would be glad to hear that. There will be other mysteries, Investigator, ones much less hazardous for you. Look at the size of the whole in the wall. I’m tracking whatever did that. That’s on me, and I’m okay with that. But I won’t have your blood on my hands. Go home. Please.”
Hommel stiffened. When he spoke his voice was brittle, laden with anger. “Fine. But before I go, if my services are no longer needed, then you won’t want me to point out that I know where Brund has gone to, seeing as he is no longer… in residence. Right?”
“Brund? You know where he is? Tell me!”
Hommel gestured to a scattered sheaf of papers on the bench.
“You were too busy pursuing the fantastic. The answer lay in the mundane. Land purchase records, deeds of title, delivery dockets, receipts…a paper trail. Brund bought a tract of very isolated farmland outside of town. Nothing on it but a dilapidated barn and there’s evidence he had some materials brought out to it once. Sound like what you want?”
“It’s on the estuary, near the stone bridge. Follow the waterway, you can’t miss…”
Quennus was already running, launching himself out the gaping hole in the room. Midair, his wings snapped open, and he launched up into the sky, flapping hard to gain height. In moments he had cleared the buildings and soared with purpose in the direction of a still river, a dark speck against the sky. He didn’t look back.
Left alone, Hommel stepped over to the hole, peering out of it to scan the sky. Did Kordel just bloomin’ fly? With wings? Where the hell had they come from?
After a long moment, Hommel stepped away from the hole, turned up his collar, and patted his pocket for his pipe. He lit the pipe as he continued to stare at the cloudy night sky.
“Now that…is a mystery.”
*Part 3 can be found here.
Magic the Gathehring fanfiction by Joshua Olsen
Being born with wings meant that Quennus had a few extra survival lessons to learn when growing up. One of the most important was about lightning. Places you wanted to be when an electrical storm was howling its fury: inside your home, warm dry and snug, or failing that, beneath the canopy of a forest.
Places you didn’t want to be during a ferocious electrical storm: on the rooftop of one of the tallest towers in the province, the tallest thing around for as far as the eye could see.
And yet that was where Quennus found himself, being battered with gales of wind and sheets of rain.
Thankfully, he had not yet been burned to a crisp by an errant bolt of lightning, nor would he be this evening, according to the spiel by the enthusiastic scientist addressing the small crowd.
“There is no place like a rooftop laboratory in a lightning storm. It’s where genius strikes,” exclaimed Renna, all dramatic gestures and loud speaking to be heard over the storm.
Behind the alchemist was a huge contraption, some kind of glass enclosure wrapped with copper wires and held tight by steel supports. Quennus had made those supports on commission from Renna, and had metalworked the struts with no effort, but he had no idea what she was planning on using them for. Now that question would be answered. When the reclusive members of the secret society that was the Progress Brethren met, it was to share their inventions and broaden understanding.
“But, as you can imagine, storms present a danger to the intellectual. So, after much experimentation I have created this storm-catching device. Not only does it attract lighting, but it stores the power of the storm for use in my other experiments. Nothing warms up a vial of regents like a bit of stored…”
As if trying to demonstrate her genius, the sky split at that moment, and a bolt of raw power arced earthward. With a crash it struck the device, which glowed white. Then it absorbed the lightning into its depths with apparent ease, leaving Renna completely unharmed. The alchemist had been standing no more than three metres from the point of impact. She didn’t even look behind her.
Renna took a slight bow as the assembled politely clapped in appreciation. A hubbub of discussion rippled through the crowd as the Progress Brethern discussed the merits and implications of the invention. Deftly, Renna hopped down from her little podium, throwing a smile Quennus’ way. Of course, she knew him in his Innistrad guise, fellow alchemist and tinkerer , Kordel the Cryptic.
“Kordel, you scoundrel! What did you think of your work, which of course made my work… work.”
“Very impressive. No doubt every necro-alchemist and skabaren will want one.”
Renna tossed her crimson hair, slicking water everywhere. “If they can afford it, and your commission rates, then maybe they’ll get one. But I doubt it, this thing cost a king’s ransom. Besides, I don’t know if I can do it again. So, did Ludevic show up this time?”
Quennus shook his head. “No, once again the self-styled master alchemist has not graced us with his presence. I don’t know what he gets up to in that lab that makes him think he can’t join the Brethern for meetings.”
“I don’t think I want to know. There’s no question he’s brilliant, but there’s something about that man that sends a shiver down my spine. We’re all better off he stays indoors.”
Quennus disagreed, though he understood the sentiment. But he’d formed the Progress Brethren around 150 years ago in a different guise specifically to draw out the recluses of Innistrad, and get them together and talking. By doing so, and dropping in occasionally to keep an eye and ear on the proceedings, he’d averted eight potential scientific and quasi-magical disasters from harming Innistrad. Most of these simply required an anonymous scroll to the local cathars. But every now and again the threat was so pronounced that Quennus had to take care of it personally. One such incident occurred three seasons ago, when he’d been forced to dispose of the work of a respected scholar who had stumbled onto a remarkable concoction that made him undergo profound physiological transformations at night. Sadly, the transformations also unhinged his mind from restraint and compassion, forcing him to give into hedonistic urges no human should act on. That terrifying night of rooftop pursuit was something Quennus hoped he’d not have to do again.
Renna resettled her hat as another lightning bolt lashed out, striking the contraption and being absorbed with a spray of sparks.
“Well, I’d better look to clearing the podium. ‘Geistmage’ Dierk is up next. Want to take a guess at what he’s got to present?”
Quennus chuckled. “Well, maybe he’ll surprise us, and have something related or powered by Geists this time, just to be unexpected.”
“Wouldn’t that be something. Well, enjoy the rest of the demonstrations, and I look forward to seeing what you’ve got to show, Kordel. Maybe afterwards you can join me for a warm cup of tea before you make your way home.”
“With weather like this, sounds good.”
With a last wave, Renna departed, slinking through the crowd to continue the exhibitions, and Quennus was left alone. Rubbing his hands to ward off the cold, Quennus turned to see if there was anything else that required his attention. There was Dierk, chatting excitedly and waving around some small brass orbs in his hands. No doubt there were geists trapped inside. And over there were the Rupkik twins, Marko and Anna, carrying some kind of brain in a jar, the thing bobbing about in preservative fluid as they struggled along with it. And standing over by the edge of the roof was…..
Quennus blinked water out of his eyes. It couldn’t be, surely? But it was: Professor Brund.
Now there was someone who warranted further attention.
It was surprising to see Brund here; the Professor had declined to come to the last three meetings. His absence had been noted: Quennus had decided to keep a long-range eye on Brund, and his informant had been reporting that Brund rarely left his dwelling, often staying in for weeks at a time. He had meals delivered, and was never out for more than a night before returning. Brund had a brilliant mind, and was clearly working on something, as evidenced by the fact that his purchase orders for small animals had more than tripled since his seclusion. At the best of times he was a reclusive individual given to pangs of paranoia and jealousy. Quennus didn’t want to think about what weeks of solitude out of the sun and social contact had done to his mindset, but whether he liked it or not, he needed to find out. Whether it was for Innistrad or Brund’s own well-being remained to be seen.
Quennus needed merely think of his cover guise, and the phyrexian programming (usually such a bane, but its uses) would engage, filling his mind’s eye with relevant data about his cover and its interactions with Brund, automatically modulating his voice and mannerisms without any acting training required. So when Professor Brund looked up, all he saw was Kordel the Cryptic, fellow nonthreatening academic.
“Evening, Professor. A pleasure to see you, even on an evening such as this.”
For a long moment, Brund didn’t reply. When he did, Quennus had to strain to hear him. He seemed to be muttering.
“Yes yes….. its Kordel. The… cryptic, that’s it! He won’t do, oh no. Not right. Not right at all. Not… optimal. Chatty. So, so chatty. Won’t he just leave me be? So much work to do. So important. The work…”
Up close, the professor didn’t look well. He had almost comically over-dressed for the occasion, wrapped in layer upon layer of heavy cloth. Tall leather boots sheathed his legs, and thick gloves wrapped his hands. Only his face was uncovered, through wrapped in a purple cloth hood that covered that obscured view.
“So, how have you been Brund? You’ve missed the last few meetings; does this mean you have something exciting new to show off? You know, I’ve always found your work to be fascinating. What have you been up to?”
Brund turned to face Quennus more squarely, though with the stormclouds and the rain his face remained hidden from sight. There was something a bit… off about the Professor’s body language, but Quennus couldn’t put a finger on what it was.
“I have figured it out Kordel. Yes, yes I have! The answer!”
“The answer to what? The angel’s madness? The lunar fluctuations?”
Abruptly, Brund’s arm shot out, coincidentally gripping Quennus’ organic arm. He seized the wrist in a surprisingly powerful grip.
“No, don’t you understand? Blind! Dullard! The angels? Tides? External pressures, like the changing of the seasons. Day to night, Harvest Moon to Hunter’s moon. Ghouls, Vampires, Angels: all just environmental pressures. Pointless to try and understand them. No. No! NO! Instead we must understand how to adapt to them, adapt to a new way of living. Life finds a way. We must find a way! And now I have it!”
Brund’s voice rose and fell erratically, broken up by pauses of tittering that brought to mind insectile chirping. Quennus was a little unnerved. Whatever sanity the long-eccentric man had, it had taken a serious battering. He might be well served in a sanitarium after tonight. Quennus was fairly sure he could see spittle spraying from beneath the hood, and tried to step back, remove his arm from Brund’s grip. But Brund did not let go, and his grip was strong as steel. He seemed to be working himself up.
“I knew it! I knew you’d all be blind! Dierk with his wisps and you, Kordel, with your little clanking contraptions. Even Renna, dear Renna… don’t worry Kordel. Don’t fret so. I have seen it. Seen the end, seen the beginning, the beginning of the end. Not death, no, no. Not for us, thanks to me. Instead… Transcendence! A metamorphosis!!”
Again seemingly obeying the rules of drama, lightning split the sky again. For a bare moment, the blinding illuminated Brund’s recessed face. What he sawed chilled Quennus to the bone.
“My god, Brund… what happened to your hair? And your irises…”
Brund shrugged, supremely unconcerned.
“Metamorphosis is a process, Kordel. It is sometimes unconventional, but always vital. I thought you might understand.”
With a little bit of fear lending him additional strength, Quennus wrenched his arm out of Brund’s dead-man grip. Brund slowly reached up and pulled down his hood, revealing his alabaster pale flesh, his solid milky-white eyes. He smiled, and made that tittering sound again. A sharp shiver rippled up Quennus’ iron spine, and it had nothing to do with the cold.
“Now Kordel, move along. I really must show the others my work. My perfection. Especially Renna. She will appreciate it, I’m sure. It is time.”
He scratched his neck vigorously, and a patch of yellow-green skin came off.
Quennus didn’t know what Brund had been up to. Franky, he didn’t want to know. The professor’s semi-coherent words hinted and procedures best unknown. He was touched, possible dangerous. The sanitarium would be the right thing. And now, rather than later. Raising his hands in a non-threatening gesture, Quennus made one final attempt at peace, reaching for a spell all the while.
“Brund. I don’t know what you are up to, but I think it has adversely affected your heath. Let me get you to a laboratory, and we can take care of this…”
Brund’s eyes narrowed.
“No. I have work to do. Things are almost optimal. After tonight, they will be.”
And he rose into the air, revealing the true horror he had until then been concealing.
Brund had wings.
Four translucent dragonfly-like wings, beating with such speed that they were a blur. Only the droning noise and the fact that they held Brund 2 metres off the floor betrayed their presence. Brund hunched over double for a second, the straightened, shredding his heavy layers as he did so. His arms had transformed into insect analogues.
Quennus had seen many things in his life, and the ability of magic to twist and shape anatomy was far from rare. But Brund had really dived into the pool of transformation: his limbs were totally encased in a bristled exoskeleton, and his human five fingered hand had become a three-digit claw.
More worryingly, they weren’t his only arms.
A second pair of identical arms sprouted from his side, almost but not quite conjoined to the socket of his ‘natural’ arms. Free of the confining boots, his grasshopper-like legs waggled in the air. The metamorphosis wasn’t limited to just extremities: Brund’s whole lower body had deformed, fusing and lengthened into a plated thorax. He was more insect than man, only his upper torso and head still betraying his human heritage.
Seeing the airborne thing before him suddenly revealed in all its aberrant glory, Quennus bit back his initial instinct to scream. If he was lucky, the wind and the rain would prevent anyone from noticing, if he acted fast. He had to incapacitate Brund and get him off this roof five minutes ago. Avoid creating a panic.
He had a spell in mind, Quennus knew a dozen ways to corral a unruly specimen or threat into immobility. He couldn’t weave an arcane tapestry with magical threads and cords, but he could sure as silver truss up something like a turkey. Glowing azure geist-chains formed in his hand, identical to those used by Innistrad’s restless spirits. Quennus’ hand twitched, and the chains sailed out, wrapping Brund’s two left arms together. Quennus planted his feet on the stone and grasped the chain two-handed, prepared to reel Brund in.
“Professor, please understand! Don’t fight me! I know its hard to see, but this is for your own good!”
Brund replied by way of a screech. Something moved within his mouth that was not a tongue, and an ear-splitting unearthly chittering howled out, horrible in its volume and pitch. It was nails on a chalkboard, magnified by three. Quennus’ hands flew to his head to protect his internal ears from the din, and his spell lost cohesion with his loss in concentration, dispersing into mist. Freed, Brund shot forward with incredible speed, and Quennus was knocked flying with a single blow.
Quennus went sprawling, rolling over and over on the water-slick roof. Fortunately he wasn’t in danger of sliding off the roof, but it was inadvisable to be sent tumbling over and over when you have wings and pinions to protect. A chimney stack stopped Quennus’ momentum-laden tumble, and he stopped, gasping for breath and pain from his now-bruised wings. A scream split the air, and Quennus forced his head blindly up.
The scene was chaos. Members of the Progress Brethren ran pell-mell in panic, those that hadn’t been violently battered away by Brund. Smashed and dropped experiments flopped or twitched in their ruptured containers, milky preservative fluid mixing with the rainwater. Above it all hovered Brund, who had eyes only for his prey: Renna. The look on his face was alien.
As Quennus struggled to his feet, he saw as Brund swooped down lightning quick, snatching up the alchemist. Without a further word he flew off, the kicking and struggling form of Renna clasped tightly in two of his insectoid arms. A moment later Brund had disappeared into the storm.
Quennus stood with a wince, running a hand over his pinions, checking for damage. The metal components hadn’t been damaged, and the wire cabling fed through his muscle hadn’t snapped, thankfully, but the tissue was deeply bruised and would hamper his flying speed, not to mention be tender for some time. Time he didn’t have. Quennus didn’t know what Brund wanted with Renna, or if even Brund himself knew. Unlike most of the monsters of Innistrad, Brund didn’t necessarily want to eat his captive straight off, but that just made the possible alternatives even worse. There wasn’t much time. He had to know where Brund had gone, and he needed a weapon. Giving this to the Cathars was out of the question. If the Brund-insect could send Quennus tumbling with one blow, ordinary humans, no matter how trained, would be made short work of.
Quennus searched through his many pockets, pulling out a small bronze device and a whistle. He held the device up, waited till it had unfurled and activated before enunciating clearly.
“Investigator Hommel: This is Kordel. The situation has drastically deteriorated. Brund is to be considered armed and extremely dangerous. Think Skabb level dangerous. He has taken off and I need to know where he is, or where he would go to when fleeing. Please investigate his home, but use extreme caution and do not approach him under any circumstances. I shall pick up two pouches of gold and be on his street within the hour, be there and they are yours. Repeat: do not approach Brund. He is… not himself. Trust me. Kordel out.”
Quennus released the mini-thopter which, with its message recorded and recipient named, sped off into the sky like an extremely efficient homing pigeon. Quennus didn’t watch it go, he was already putting the whistle to his lips and blowing three sharp notes, then repeating the call. He was just stowing the whistle when a hand fell on his shoulder. It was Geistmage Dierk. His normally care-free face was split with worry.
“Kordel. That thing, that took Renna… it had Brund’s…”
“I know. It was him.”
“Avacyn preserve us….”
“Should… should we call the Cathars?”
“No. I’m going to take care of this. Go home. Stay indoors till sunrise. I’ll see you at the next meeting.”
Behind him, Quennus felt a disturbance in the wind as a great shape landed on the roof with not a little awkwardness just behind him. Dierk took a step back in alarm.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been training them. That being said, no sudden movements. Truth be told, my exhibition for this meeting was little lacking because I’ve been distracted. Good evening Dierk.”
Quennus turned to the adult drake waiting for him like a large very hungry dog. Quennus had been using Drakes on almost every plane he found them, the creatures were very trainable and fairly intelligent and reliable, if a bit vicious. The Nephalian Moondrake, he had found, was both tractable and powerful, and a full sized one like Neka, with a wingspan of an ox-cart, could carry him unaided. He expertly slipped into the hanging saddle harnessed under the drake’s stomach, and took the reins. He was about to signal Neka to take off when he saw that Dierk had sidled up to him, his eyes on the drake every hesitant step of the way.
“If you’re going after Brund, you might want to take these. I was going to show them off tonight. But that doesn’t matter now. They should prove helpful.”
Quennus took the proffered bronze orbs. Each orb had a small pin sticking out, and several tiny glass insets into them, from which green smoke steamed out.
“What are they?”
Dierk told him, and Quennus was impressed. Thanking Dierk, Quennus tugged gently on Neka’s reign, and a moment later he was airborne, flying out into the pitch dark Nephalian night.
Of course, lighting was a major risk, but there was nothing to do for that but hope. Lives were at stake.
*To be continued…
Part 2 is found here.
Magic the Gathehring fanfiction by Joshua Olsen
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.
Quennus turned back to face Tarrin, revealing he was holding the syringe from before.
“What’s it going to do?”
“It will help. Try to hold still, this might sting a little…”
“No! Wait, wait a moment, I don’t want tha- Arrrrgh!”
The syringe effortlessly pieced Tarrin’s coppery skin, depositing a load of unknown liquid straight into the Auriok’s bloodstream. Almost instantly coolness, like ice, spread through Tarrin’s body, causing him to shiver violently for a few moments, rattling the restraints. Just as he began to seriously worry that the coldness would not stop and he would be frozen from the inside out, the cold dimmed down to a bearable chilly feeling in his head and chest, and Tarrin dimly realised his panic had gone, his fear sliding away without protest. He simply felt relaxed and blissfully at ease, even as Quennus reached for him again, holding another syringe filled with liquid.
“What have you done to me?” He asked in a hollow, level voice that echoed how he was feeling.
“I have injected you with a composite drug of my own invention. It affects the higher functions of the subject’s cortex, specifically the frontal hippocampus. In effect it’s quite useful for subjugating and de-prioritizing…….” Quennus noticed at the mildly confused look on his subject’s face. “In simple terms, it numbs your emotions. I myself am usually on a watered-down version while I go about my duties.” Quennus tossed the spent syringe back on to the tray, and grabbed another. Tarrin idly noticed that it had a different coloured band to the first one.
“And we mustn’t forget this one as well.”
Without further comment he administered the contents of the syringe into Tarrin, this time in the wrist.
“And what does that one do?”
“I will demonstrate in a moment,” Mumbled Quennus in a distracted manner as he snatched up a third syringe from his workbench. This time however Quennus injected himself, putting the syringe up to the back of his head, where it seemed to easily slide into a recess on the machinery there. His eyes closed as he pushed the plunger down, well his organic eye did at any rate, and as he withdrew the syringe he trembled violently, as Tarrin himself had done moments earlier. Without explanation he strode forward to Tarrin, and made a quick movement, whipping his hand out and back as though he was a painter dabbing with a brush.
“Do you feel anything?”
Tarrin blinked. “Should I have?”
Quennus raised a hand up to Tarrin’s point of view. He was holding a scalpel with blood on it. Fresh blood on it.
“I just severed your Primary Tendon muscle. If the drug had not worked you would be been in considerable pain. Do not be concerned.”
And he bent over Tarrin’s chest, bloody scalpel still in hand.
“Please do not move. It will make my work difficult.”
Tarrin felt a strange sensation, as though something blunt was being slowly being dragged down his chest. It didn’t hurt at all; it was just a sensation of something being there. And it was then, unhindered by emotion, with only the logic remaining, that he understood. He spoke, with the tone one might use for discussing the weather.
“I’m not going to make it out of here alive, am I Quennus?”
Quennus’ metal eye swivelled to look up at him, while his original one continued to keep track of the incision he was making. He sighed.
“No. I am afraid not.”
Tarrin’s mind knew he should have been afraid at this revelation, or angry, or perhaps wracked with sobbing, but the drug blanked his feelings, kept them out of reach. But intellectual curiosity remained.
“Can you tell me why? I’d like to know.”
Without looking up from his vivisection, Quennus continued to talk, but Tarrin noticed his voice too was a little bit flatter than it had been prior to the injection.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of ‘The Greater Good’, Tarrin. For example, taking one life to save ten is better than merely saving one, and so forth. But what…..”
A squirt of blood arched through the air as Quennus sawed through layers of muscle and skin using the scalpel. Tarrin lay his head back, continued to listen idly.
“….if we were talking not about individual lives, but entire worlds? I’ve seen them, been to them. The multiverse is vast Tarrin…..so vast. There are more worlds out there than I can count; certainly I haven’t been to them all in over 20 years of Planeswalking. You have no idea; it would blow your mind to know how just how small everything you know is.”
The scalpel danced in Quennus’ experienced hands.
“I told you Phyrexia has left its mark on me, and I told the truth. A long time ago, Phyrexia attacked my home plane, much how it is now doing the same to Mirrodin.”
“Really? What happened, was Phyrexia stopped?”
“At the end of a long and gruelling campaign, the people of my home plane thought we had eradicated Phyrexia from existence, though it left our world scarred and damaged for long afterwards. But evidently we were wrong, for somehow the infection has survived to take hold here, and Mirrodin has not been as fortunate. I would be fascinated to know how it happened; from what I’ve seen it would take only a small piece of Phyrexia to start the cycle again, perhaps as little as a goblet-full of the oil could….”
There was a crack, and suddenly Tarrin felt humid air where he had never felt it before. The sensation was unusual, but not entirely unpleasant.
“You might be interested to know you are in excellent shape for an Auriok, your heart is strong and I’m seeing a very healthy set of lungs here. You could probably have lived to an above average age if not for…..”
Quennus locked eyes with Tarrin for a moment, but the bird-man looked away from Tarrin’s blank stare almost straight away. He didn’t seem to be able to finish the sentence. Tarrin decided to break the awkward silence sooner rather than later, he was on a time limit after all.
“Please, continue your story. I want to hear it all.”
After a moment’s silence Quennus extracted his hand, holding something soft and squishy in it. As he put the harvested specimen in a preserving jar he continued to talk, and all Tarrin could do was continue to remain still and let Quennus’ words wash over him.
“I understand that Mirrodin’s people’s joined forces in the face of the Phyrexian invasion, as the people of my home plane did, but you were too late. I understand the hesitancy; no man, woman or child is ready to accept the reality of what Phyrexia means, even when it has started to spread like a cancer. But I think even at the height of the war that the Mirrans still underestimated what they were up against. Again, understandable, but fatal.”
“Phyrexia? It’s some kind of abhorrent civilisation, is it not?”
Quennus shook his head.
“No, it is more than that. You and the Mirrans see it as an invading army, seeking your lands and people’s for subjugation. But Phyrexia is far more than that Tarrin. Phyrexia is an entire ecosystem all itself, a kind of super-organism that aims only to grow and consume until there is nothing left but Phyrexia. It doesn’t exist to defeat armies or isolated villages, it exists to destroy entire civilisations, wipe out entire ecosystems. Every non-Phyrexian thing in existence is at risk, there is nothing Phyrexia will not do to assimilate everything in its path. And here is where the greater good comes in. What do you do with someone sick with an incurable disease, to prevent them from passing the sickness onto others?”
“Well, I suppose the only thing to do is to kill the person, or failing that put them somewhere separate from others, keep them isolated….”
“Exactly! Quarantine is the only solution! Mirrodin is lost, with the exception of the few remaining Mirrans, there is nothing left to save here. Phyrexia has won. But it must not be allowed to get off this world. If Phyrexia knew that other worlds exist out there they…. would find a way to get to them. They would sweep through the whole multiverse. That cannot happen. The only remaining way to deal with Phyrexia is to make it think there is no-where else to spread to. Make sure that Mirrodin is the prison that keeps Phyrexia contained. Forever.”
“And is that why you have come here? You mentioned a mission.” The words came harder now, as though he was fighting against a heavy wind to say to say them. Tarrin’s breathing rate had picked up, but he still felt no discomfort.
“Yes. I was captured by Phyrexia early into my plane’s war with it, and turned into what you see before you. Phyrexia recognises me as its own, I bear its marks and technologies, but it fails to realise that I have my own thoughts and emotions. So I came here, posed as just another cog in the machine, a drone amongst millions of others. No other could have hoped to infiltrate Phyrexia like this. By doing Phyrexia’s grotesque work well, I have worked my up through the hierarchy of the Progress Engine. Now, I am a respected scientist, my words and scientific theorems carry much influence and I regularly have the ear of none other than the Praetor itself.
Tarrin noticed a slight tone of pride in Quennus’ words, mixed with regret.
“And so I have been hiding, erasing or discrediting all evidence of the existence of other plane’s existence. Sometimes I am able to simply wipe the memory of an Exarch, other times I must dispose of them completely before they can spread word of any dangerous discoveries. It has been hard work, always so close to discovery, always covering my tracks so that The Core Augur suspects nothing is afoot. The things I’ve had to do to play the part, Tarrin, you have no idea. I don’t think I can ever forget my sins. I hate that it has to be this way, I hate that the burden falls to me and me alone to do this abominable work…..”
Tarrin gave a wet cough suddenly, his pinned frame wracked with spasms once, twice, three times. When the cough subsided he could feel blood leaking out of his face and gliding down his chin. The feel of it pooling in his nose produced a vaguely ticklish feeling.
“You don’t have long left Tarrin.”
“I guessed. But I’m not afraid.”
“I know. I am glad to know I am able to stop your suffering. Consider it the only gift I can give you.”
Quennus deftly pulled a scrap of cloth from some recess and dabbed the blood up.
“You must understand, I have been saving as many Mirrans as I can. I stage “escapes” and help the Mirran Resistance to launch rescue raids every now and again, and when I am not occupied by my cover duties I visit the Resistances’ base and Planeswalk groups of Mirrans to other words where they can live new lives, but I can’t save them all. It would be too suspicious if too many prisoners went missing, I must not draw attention to myself and my activities. The Core Augar is smart, I must be above suspicion. I couldn’t save you Tarrin, your vivisection had already been approved when I met you, it would have raised far too many questions to have you escape on my watch. I’m deeply sorry. But I will not let your death be in vain. It’s all part….”
“….Of the greater good,” finished Tarrin. He nodded in understanding. It all made sense, in a calculating sort of way. The stakes were unimaginable; casualties of war had to be expended.
Quennus leaned over Tarrin, looming in close. He spoke rapidly now, hurrying his words.
“But I can save your wife and child. They are assigned to be subjected to Phyrisis later on in the cycle; I can easily assign myself as their surgeon.”
Tarrin had started to hyperventilate now, his chest heaving rapidly as his body struggled to cope with what was happening to it. He was beginning to feel cold all over, even though his forehead was slick with sweat. His limbs felt heavy, not the heaviness after a long day of work, but unnaturally heavy, like they had been replaced with lead. Black spots began to appear in his vision, fading in and out. But Quennus was still there, looking back at him. He didn’t seem so scary now, ugly yes, but not scary, like a scarred old ancestor watching over you with advice. There was even a shadow of concern in the surgeon’s avian face, he was sure of it. With his organic hand Quennus cradled Tarrin’s head, trying to settle the shaking.
“You’re going into cardiac arrest. No no no,” he said quietly as Tarrin opened his mouth to try and speak. “Just listen. I swear to you I will save your family, Tarrin of the Auriok, and I will tell them how much you love them when I do so. I will tell them you were brave to the very last.”
“Th…..tha……Thank……you” he managed to choke out.
Quennus’ metal hand tightly clasped Tarrin’s violently shaking, vein-stricken flesh one, even though he knew the patient he had killed wouldn’t be able to feel the gesture.
“Promise….me…..one m-more thing, Q-Q-Quennus.” Tarrin’s voice had died down to a whisper, a rattle evident in it.
“I will try.”
Tarrin seemed to find some strength from within his cracked-open, partly dissected body, and he spoke clearly, one last time. Each word was an effort.
“They…. may have made you in their image on the outside, you may have to act like them, but don’t….. don’t become like them on the inside…. You have to save as many as you can….”
And he fell still, the bronze light of life that flickered in his eyes faded away with that thousand-mile stare that Quennus had seen countless times on his operating slab. The hand that had gripped Quennus so tightly a moment ago fell still, slackly releasing the chrome fingers. Quennus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt there was no point checking for a pulse, it was his own hands that had effectively taken the man’s life.
Quennus staggered back, spattered with blood and bodily fluids. He leant back against a wall, head in hands. He didn’t weep, didn’t scream in guilt or smash the fine instruments in a fit of rage. The only evidence that the emotion-suppressing drug he was on wasn’t totally working was a single tear that slid from the corner of his hazel eye. Quickly Quennus wiped the tear up, holding it up to the light of the lab. Even without his mechanical eye’s zoom function he could see the single droplet was clouded with black, filled with toxic Phyrexian oil. Phyrexia had even taken everything from him, everything, even something as simple as the purity of grief. Quennus quickly squished the droplet between two fingers as if by doing so he could crush the whole of New Phyrexia, take his revenge with just that one act.
Then, with that little private moment over, Quennus wiped off his instruments, removed his surgical attire, and strode from the room, not once looking back at the body that lay strapped and opened up on the slab.
Tarrin was straining against his bonds when he heard the sound. As soon as he had awoken, strapped to an operating slab deep in some biomechanical hell, he had been feverishly working to free his arms. At first he had tried to tug the clamps free, but they were made from some type of organic cable that gave in against his pulls, and then elastically snapped back. Giving up on that, Tarrin had tried to use the metallic growths sprouting from his left shoulder blade to cut through the cords, but he could hardly reach them to get a good cut, and it was tiring work. He had just cracked the metal outer casing of the bonds on his right hand, revealing weaker sinew beneath and causing bubbling black ichor to slowly leak out when he heard someone, or more likely something approaching. The irregular clanking of the figure was closing in; the isolation of the surgery/slaughterhouse Tarrin found himself meant that the figure could only be coming this way to see him.
Tarrin fought down rising fear: he had no illusions about what was going to happen to him now. Back in the refugee camps, he’d heard the tales from traumatized Neurok spies: how captured Mirrins were taken to Phyrexian laboratories like the one he was in and subjected to tortuous experiments so vile and debased as to be practically indescribable. Dissections conducted while the subject was still alive, forced organ removal and graftings, biological weapons testing: these were just some of the options facing Tarrin, and at the end of it all, Phyresis, turning him into one of them. Tarrin thrashed wildly on the slab, pulled at the damaged clamp with all his strength, but it didn’t work, he needed to damage the clamp more, needed more time. Time he didn’t have.
As the door to the surgery slid open he abruptly laid corpse-still, trying to avoid attracting the attention of whatever Phyrexian had entered. He heard as two figures entered the lab, the insidious scuttle of something multi-legged, presumably an insectoid menial drone of some kind, and the heavy irregular steps of something humanoid, no doubt its master. For all their vat-grown horrors and shock troops, the leaders of Phyrexia were always humanoid, if only in the vaguest, barest sense of the word.
Unable to see what was going on because the slab was facing away from the entrance; Tarrin could only listen as the drone chittered in its obscene indecipherable dialect, while its master rummaged around placing metallic instruments on a tray. A moment later, and the master was moving towards Tarrin. This was it then: he was going to be experimented on. Blind terror rose in Tarrin’s chest, but he forcibly quelled it. He didn’t know if Sadra and Varil had escaped the Phyrexian’s raid, but he had to cling to that hope. He wouldn’t beg, wouldn’t give the Phyrexians the pleasure of breaking him. Wherever they were, he could do that much for them. Breathing deeply to try and master his emotions, Tarrin braced himself for the disturbing sight that would be his captor.
A hand gripped the operating slab, shifting it down from its angled position to an almost horizontal one, and as the slab descended, Tarrin caught an eyeful of the Phyrexian Surgeon. He gasped. “Bladewardens preserve us all…..” He’d been prepared for something disturbing, something out of a child’s nightmare, but not for this. Tarrin’s brain tried to supply further words, to perhaps beg for mercy, or even just scream, but the surgeon’s appearance had shocked him beyond words.
The figure that loomed over him possessed an aesthetic common to all Phyrexians: a form that was partly organic and partly mechanical combined seamlessly in some places and crudely in others. While some Phyrexians were unrecognisable from their original forms, others were simply modified versions of what they had been pre-phyresis, and this creature clearly took after the latter. It was no Leonin or Loxodon though, nor an elf, goblin or ogre, or any species Tarrin had ever seen or heard of, but some kind of bird-hybrid.
The surgeon had the body shape of a man, with the head, hands and feet of a great bird, a hawk perhaps. Two currently folded-in wings sprouted from its back, and feathers coated about half its body, wherever metal didn’t intrude. Steam hissed from various hidden parts of the bird-thing, and Tarrin could pick out the slow sound of pistons moving back and forth somewhere around the chest, as well as crackling electricity. One hand had been completely replaced with an abnormally long-fingered metallic graft, each of the 8 multi-jointed fingers tipped with an assortment of sharp instruments not out of place in a torturer’s rack. Countless plates of polished chrome glinted brightly from where they have been grafted, bolted, and fused onto the Phyrexian’s flesh, and blood mixed with black oozed with treacle-like slowness from around them to slowly spatter the floor. The beak appeared to be the best crafted of these plates, the top half of the beak was a solid and finely fitted piece of what looked to be pure silver. It looked a bit out of place, as though put in by a different artificer to the rest of the Surgeon’s “improvements”. The surgeon turned to look at Tarrin in better detail, revealing that one of the creature’s original eyes had been removed, replaced with an implant. The forbidding neon-red light stared back at him from the cavity. Unblinking. Alien. Merciless.
A moment later it appeared to have seen enough, and it turned away from Tarrin. As it set its tray of surgical instruments down and sorted them, Tarrin saw that the eye wasn’t the only area that had been extensively worked on around the head, the back of the cranium had been encased by machinery, no doubt to allow for greater processing power, or, as Tarrin realised with horror, to allow easy access to the surgeon’s brain. Similarly, though partially concealed beneath liquid-spattered surgical garments, the surgeon’s shoulders and upper back around the spine were a lot bulkier than its natural form would suggest it should be, with steel cables entwined through the natural sinew of the wing’s pinions.
This observation of his captor’s anatomy, though distressing in its own way, was a welcome relief from Tarrin’s dire situation. But when the surgeon turned back to face him, now clutching a huge medical syringe, his temporary stunned calm shattered. Breathing kicked into overdrive, Tarrin felt all the fight-or-flight terror of a cornered animal, but without either of the options. The surgeon barked something harshly to the drone, an order perhaps, and then moved towards Tarrin with the syringe, test squirting a few spurts of some rust-coloured viscous liquid.
Tarrin’s resolve collapsed in a moment. “GET BACK! DON’T YOU COME ANY CLOSER MONSTER!!” he bellowed, half in fear, half in anger.
At the word “monster”, the Surgeon, who had the syringe mere centimetres from Tarrin’s neck, stopped abruptly. It looked Tarrin in the eye, as though looking for meaning there. For a long moment Tarrin looked into his captor’s mismatched eyes, before turning away, unable to bear seeing his own fearful reflection in the Surgeon’s half crimson, half hazel gaze. Out of the corner of his eyes, Tarrin could sense the Surgeon cock its head to one side in an owl-like manner, as though puzzled by what it had heard. A second later it abruptly stepped aside, out of Tarrin’s field of vision altogether. He heard the insectoid drone give a confused chittering as the surgeon approached it. Then there was an almighty flash of blue, like a solar flare off the blue sun. It filled the room for a moment, then faded away without explanation. A few seconds later, the Bird-Surgeon was back, uncomfortably filling Tarrin’s field of vision. Its beak opened, as it grasped the syringe once more. To Tarrin’s astonishment, it spoke in perfectly pronounced Aurian, though it had a mechanical inflection to its words.
“I am no monster. I may have been….. marked by Phyrexia, Auriok, but it is NOT my master.”
Tarrin goggled. “You…… you can talk!?”
The Surgeon snorted, causing a burst of steam to emerge from somewhere on its body, ruffling his surgical attire.
“We have precious little time, let’s not waste what we have with obvious questions. My name is Quennus.”
A thousand questions seemed to clamour for first place in Tarrin’s mind, jostling for prime position.
“I’m Tarrin, of the Glint Hawk tribe. Look, if you’re not with the Phyrexian’s, what are you doing here? And why are you able to stand here and talk to me? You…. you were about to cut me open, like one of them! How could you?”
Quennus leaned in. “As I said, there is little time, so you need to listen closely and be prepared to understand a great deal of information swiftly. I am assisting the Mirran resistance, particularly the Neurok agents Vy Covalt and Kara Vrist.”
Hope flared in Tarrin’s chest, maybe there was a way out of this after all! “You’re with the resistance! That’s great news! Are you here to free me? Have you seen my wife and son? Are they safe? Are they…..” But a moment later Tarrin realised that something was wrong with the situation. He jerked his head over his shoulder repeatedly, trying to convey a message without words. Upon seeing Quennus’ look of confusion he sharply whispered.
“You’re blowing your cover, the drone! The thing that came in with you! It’s heard everything we’ve said! You’ve got to cut me free, we have to get out of here right now, before it raises the alarm!”
Understanding filled Quennus’ organic eye, and then he slowly shook his head, one measured movement, left, and then right.
“Do not worry. My transcriber-drone has unexpectedly suffered a most unfortunate malfunction, and has been totally and utterly focused on looking at a blank space of wall since we started talking. It is not of concern to us.”
“Did…..you did something to it?”
“That is correct.”
Tarrin smiled. Everything was going to be okay now, he knew it. “So, you’re in the resistance? I have so much I wish to know! Are you here to get me free? How did you infiltrate into this place? And, forgive me, but I have to ask, what ARE you? You don’t look Mirran, I mean I know you’ve been…. worked on, but I can’t even figure out what you are.”
Quennus looked at himself for a moment, an expression something like regret writ over his features. Was it regret? Or maybe just concentration. It was hard to identify subtle emotions off him, his face and body had been so disfigured by the Phyrexian “augmentations”. Then the moment was gone, and his face was once more impassive.
“Listen closely Tarrin. I am not ‘with’ the resistance as such; I am simply sympathetic to their cause. My presence, and my work here, is more anti-Phyrexian than pro-Mirran. But yes, I help them out when it is feasible to do so. The reason you do not recognise my species’ genus, is because I am not native to your world. To put it in simple terms, I have come to Mirrodin from another plane of existence.”
What does one say to a statement like that? Where do you even begin… thought Tarrin, his disbelief stretched so far it was about to snap. “If that’s true, then how are you….”
“I am a mage of rare, extraordinary power. I have the skill to be able to travel between worlds. It is known as Planeswalking.
“That’s….. incredible. Amazing.”
“That is the standard reaction.”
Suddenly Tarrin recalled the blue flash he had witnessed earlier. “And you used this magic of yours to hoodwink the drone before?”
Quennus nodded. “Very astute. It will not realise what has happened, and later, I will submit it to my superiors as having malfunctioned, losing all my information. It will probably be broken down into its constituent parts and used for other purposes. Now, you mentioned before your wife and child. Were they with you when you were captured?”
“Yes, well not quite. I told them to run when the raiders came, I have no idea if they managed to get away. But we were in the same camp at the time. Sadra and Varil, have you seen them? Please, tell me they’re not here. Tell me they’re not….”
He couldn’t finish the sentence.
Quennus nodded, seemed to understand. “One moment.” He took a step back from the operating slab, deftly tapping his metallic temple with a hand. His artificial eye whirred clicked and sparked for a few seconds, rotating madly this way and that, zooming in and out. Eventually it came to a stop, the chrome iris retracting to reveal more of the crimson light. Suddenly light shot out of the eye, forming a projection a few centimetres from Quennus. The projection shifted, it seemed to be some kind of moving pictures. Tarrin squinted, tried to make them out, but they were back to front and the wrong way up from where he was, the images flashing by at lightning speed: corridors and hallways, shapeless things that filled the projection and disappeared, racks of strange and disturbing devices, and last, a row of what looked like faces with collars around their necks….
Quennus tapped his temple again, and the projection vanished, his artificial eye returning to its prior state. He looked Tarrin straight on. “I think I have seen them. Your son, he has your eyes?”
“Yes! Yes! That’s Varil! Can you save him? Is he okay?”
Quennus raised a hand abruptly.
“Hush, calm yourself.” He walked over to his tray of implements, facing away from Tarrin. He spoke without looking back, his tone less mechanical, but more serious than anything he’d said so far.
“Tarrin, would you do anything to save your family?”
“Of course, of course, but what are you talking…..”
“Yes, of course. Please, please. Save them.”
“Very well. Then you’ll need to take this.”
To Be Continued…