Joshua Olsen’s Cantrips & Catastrophies
A Magic the Gathering FanFiction short story
Renna’s Rooftop, Selhoff, Nephalia, Innistrad
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