*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.
Author’s note: Dear readers, the following was written as the sort of scene that you find in many action movies that introduce a bad-ass character. Imagine this piece as the literary equivalent to the scene in every Terminator movie where Arnie wipes out some poor biker blokes so he can acquire some clothing. As such, don’t expect any stunning philosophical discourses forthcoming. Do expect some good old fashioned carnage though. Enjoy.
Arrkas gasped, a pointed blade had just been forced between his scales and deep into his back from behind. Before Arrkas could do more than let out a howl, a shape was leaping onto his back, and to add insult to injury he could feel as a vampire’s pointed fangs bit hard into his neck, piercing the skin and draining blood. His blood!
Outrage cut the pain down to size, even as the sword-wielding vampire twisted the sword around in the wound. The second vampire clung tightly against Arrkas’ body, sucking his blood down as fast as it could. Cowards! Attacking him from behind! Arrkas grasped at the vampire atop him with his free hand, trying to grab hold of the beast and throttle it like a dog, but the creature was out of his reach and he couldn’t get purchase. “GET! OFF! ME! LEECH!” The vampire reared back with a hiss to avoid his arm, and lunged forward again at the wound, biting harder. A spray of blood spattered against the side of Arrkas’ head, coating one of his eyes. This was becoming problematic; he would soon weaken if he couldn’t get the vampire’s away from him. Bloodied eye shut, Arrkas waited agonizingly long seconds for the vampire to rear up again, seeking no doubt to tear his whole throat out this time. He snapped his tail up, smacking the vampire around the head and driving it forward. Arrkas then snapped his head back, smashing it into the vampire’s jaw.
Grabbing the stunned vampire by the head, Arrkas hurled it away, unconcerned with where the creature went, as long as it was off him. The sword wielding vampire had meanwhile twisted the sword in for all it was worth, rending the muscle. The sword was in deep, as deep as the vampire had been able to drive it, but that slowed the bleeding, the sword stoppering the puncture hole in Arrkas’ hide.
Exhaling hard and once again pushing the pain down, Arrkas spun around to his rear, sweeping his table-leg club at waist height, aiming for the vampire. The creature nimbly leapt back to avoid getting splattered, but was forced to leave its sword still embedded in Arrkas to do so. Arrkas followed through quickly, stepping in and punting the vampire across the room with a hooking kick. The vampire sailed across the room, but landed with perfect grace on the wall, sticking to it like an insect. It snarled, drawing a handheld crossbow. Arrkas reversed his grip on the table leg so it faced pointy end out, and he hurled it like a javelin. With an impressive thunk it impaled the vampire, pinning him to the wall through the torso. The vampire, held halfway up the floor by the table leg rather than its own magic, like some kind of hunting trophy, tried for several seconds to pull the improvised spear out of its gut before it coughed blood and died.
Arrkas turned, the other vampire was already standing. A few chips of rock lying on the floor betrayed where Arrkas’ wild throw had sent the vampire, but the bloodsucker appeared quite unharmed. Indeed, it was barely paying its adversary any attention at all, too busy licking up the Viashino’s blood that had spattered across its clothing and pale skin. Arrkas watched, mildly disgusted, as the vampire sucked its fingers like a man dying of thirst, running hands through its hair to try and find any stray droplets. Eventually it could get no more, and looked up at Arrkas. There was something different about its eyes, the sheer black was now flecked with a touch of gold.
“Your blood…..I’ve never tasted anything like it…..something in it…..so much raw power…..saturated with ancient magic. I must have more, NEED more of it!”
“What makes you think you can come and take it?” Arrkas snarled.
The vampire laughed, and picked up a heavy tower shield that had been knocked off the wall where it had been part of the Voldaren crest of arms. It was made from finest quality tempered steel and had taken expert forgers over 3 days of solid labor to craft, but that didn’t really mean much as the vampire bent it in half with its hands, tossing the folded metal aside. Arrkas wasn’t put on edge because of the feat, but because of how easily the vampire had done it. There had only been a modicum of effort involved, it seemed Arrkas’ planeswalker blood had a potent effect on a blood-drinking creature; it had absorbed some of his magic. Arrkas gave the vampire his best I-Will-Break-You voice.
“My blood stays in my veins leech. Now why don’t you scurry along and fetch the Count for…..”
He was talking to an empty space. By the planes, the vampire was fast. There was a flittering in his peripheral vision, and Arrkas’ head smashed into the floor, shattering floorboards. He lashed out blindly, but it was like striking stone, and then he was flying again, crashing through one of the few untouched pieces of furniture. His sword wound throbbed, and snarling Arrkas wrenched the blade out, bringing it around even as the empowered vampire came at him again. The vampire moved around the strike with ease, but Arrkas had anticipated such a move and curved the swing, catching his attacker in a glancing cut all the way along its arm, slicing through the expensive material. The vampire’s other hand came in palm-first, catching Arrkas in the temple, wrenching him sideways. By the time Arrkas righted his feet, the sword was no longer in his hand. The vampire hissed with hunger, snapping the sword in two like it was made of brittle candy. Even as Arrkas circled the vampire, wary of his foe, the deep cut to the vampire’s arm began to seal itself with empowered swiftness. When the cut receded the vampire gave Arrkas a lazy smile, arms extended as it circled him.
“Are there any more of your kind around? Your blood makes a human’s taste as ash-filtered muck, I fear it would be hard to go back to it after wrenching that delectable bounty from your veins.”
Arrkas knew the vampire was arrogant, drunk of its newly acquired power, but he also knew the danger of the situation. The other leeches were no match for him, but this one could be his undoing. For one thing, it was fresh and healthy, while he was wounded and fatigued. A situation that rarely went well for a fighter in the wild. He could Planeswalk away, but to flee from such a foe was not worth considering.
Besides, the vampire might be too fast to allow him to do even that.
Arrkas rolled his shoulders, trying to get the feeling back.
“You’ve only tasted my power creature. Your strength is not your own, and you shall not defeat me with it.”
“My god, you talk so slowly lizard-man. You talk slow, and you move slow.”
Then the vampire blurred from sight again, only experiencing it before allowed Arrkas to reach out and grab the vampire as it appeared in front of him as if by magic. He roared, slamming his fist into the pale thing’s face. When Arrkas hit things, they stayed hit. Especially a head shot like that. He pulled his fist back to hit again, to bash the thing’s brains out of its body, but then it wasn’t there, and he felt its fangs sink into his side, draining him. He went into a fury, holding the vampire tight and seeking to pummel it into mush, but his grips would only be there for a moment before it would twist out, and then it would lash out, draining him, slowly weakening Arrkas’ strength while it replenished its own injuries. He could never land a series of blows to stun or knock it off balance. After a few tense moments he grasped it again, threw it bodily away before it could escape, anything to keep it at arm’s length for a bit. The vampire cartwheeled mid-air, landing gently on the wall feet first, and easily flipped back to the ground without a scratch on it.
Arrkas was panting. The vampire was not. This was getting serious. The vampire wanted to spend all day dodging things? Well let’s see him dodge this.
With instinct born of years of practice, Arrkas momentarily let the reality of the world slip away. His injuries, outside noises….. both slipped away as Arrkas took hold of his connection to the land in this plane, and tugged on it, pulling mana to him. With a flash of green energy his forearms were sheathed in gauntlets of primal sorcery, tripling the size of his fists. Arrkas raised those fists up high, and as he did so time seemed to slow ever so slightly for him. He saw the vampire move into a sprinter’s crouch, about to blur towards him. It sensed something amiss. Too bad it was too late.
With the bellow of a man triumphant, Arrkas brought his fists down on the floor of Voldaren Manor.
The resulting tremor was felt throughout the whole mansion.
Windows blew. Paintings fell, and anything not bolted down rattled. The floor around Arrkas cracked, split and buckled, erupting out from the point of impact in an aura of destruction. A localized wave of seismic energy picked up the vampire and tossed him into the air, and it was as he was in the air that Arrkas leapt. No enhanced reflexes could aid the blood-sucking monster when it was unexpectedly airborne. Arrkas could see it twisting and flailing with his predator’s eye as it realized the situation. But there was nothing for it to grab or push off, all it could do was wait for gravity to kick back in and take it to the ground. Too slow.
Arrkas crashed into the leech mid-air, striking it like a piledriver and using his weight to bring them down hard. They came down amongst the shattered floorboards, Arrkas on top, the weight of his impact driving his knees hard into the vampire. It tried to buck him off, but Arrkas had all the leverage he needed now, pushing himself down against the prone vampire. He started to drop wild haymakers into its head, and at this close range there was no way to dodge. The vampire seized Arrkas’ body in two great handfuls and squeezed with the strength of desperation, fingers carving deep into Viashino flesh, but Arrkas was no youngling. The simplest way to alleviate pain was to bludgeon the thing causing the pain into submission, and that was what he did. His fists, bolstered by the enchantment, rose and fell in terrible rhythm, and then it was done. Bloody, injured, triumphant, Arrkas Zek rose from the crater and stood on cut and bleeding legs.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
He turned. At the furthermost entrance to the ballroom, some seventy strides away, was the Count. The master of Voldaren Manor was marked out by his aristocratic stature, his unequalled finery, and the aura of raw menace he projected. Around him stood at least two dozen other vampires, guards and high-born both, bedecked in armor and laden with rapiers, halberds, crossbows and other assorted weapons. The count lazily took in the scene of slaughterhouse carnage before him with cold fury, but he projected lazy amusement.
“Well well well. Most impressive stranger. If I had known you would go to such lengths to seek an audience with me, I might have reconsidered sending a carriage after all.”
Arrkas spat, blood and a tooth further marking the floor.
“I needed to talk to you. Not your envoys, not your lackeys. You. What I have to say is for your ears alone.”
The count spread his arms in an exaggerated fashion.
“Then by all means speak. Share your message. I hope you do not mind if my court listens in though, I like for them to see my lordly business at work. If they are lucky, they may even get to watch on as I make your death following this conversation a messy and drawn out thing. Or maybe I’ll just keep it private.”
If Arrkas was scared by the Count’s merciless words, he gave no indication. His voice was full of terrible severity as he looked the Count square in the eye.
“My message is simple: this is your last night in this world, alive or undead. You, and all the disgraceful whelps who reside here will die, and this monument to hedonism will burn to the ground.”
The Count laughed, his mocking guffaws soon joined by his assembled court. The very notion was preposterous!
“If you believe those words you are either a fool or an idiot. Your abilities in killing my most expendable brethren is impressive, but you are injured, and alone. You cannot hope to prevail. Kneel before me know, and I shall see you die with some dignity. Probably not your eyes or tongue, but some dignity. Your crusade is at an end.”
Arrkas grinned, exposing a mouthful of teeth to make any vampire jealous.
“Who ever said I came alone?”
Behind Arrkas, out on the balcony, a shape was stirring. A furred hand, hideously large, grabbed the balustrade, and began to haul a huge form over.
The Count’s grin shrank back by a few teeth.
“I’m sure you didn’t think I’d notice the wards over the perimeter, keeping out those you didn’t want in. But when I gained access to the grounds, I happened to leave the main gate open….. and the wards inscribed on them rent apart.”
More shapes were appearing at the shattered windows. First one, then two, then half a dozen. The vampire’s heightened senses began to pick up that which the rain had been keeping from them: the rank stench of wet fur.
The vampire contingent began to shrink back. The count’s formerly wide grin of superiority was now a grim slash on his face.
“That, and a full moon, is all it takes to get some of my hunting friends to come join me.”
The werewolves were now padding into the room, snarls etched on their lupine toothy snouts. Saliva dripped from their mouths as they salivated at the smell of all the fresh meat. The lycanthropes were massive specimens, scarred and lean and full of the bloodlust of the wild. Long had they wanted to get in and feed, but until tonight they had been kept out. Not tonight.
A wall of muscle and fur advanced slowly, with that kind of horribly delayed threat of violence that only a stalking animal can provoke. As the first werewolf, a massive coal-black alpha, went to walk past Arrkas it stopped, instinctively recognizing another predator’s presence.
“You see Count, you thought yourself the greatest power in these lands. Your first mistake. You thought you could keep the hunger of the wild at bay. Your second mistake. And you are wrong about one more thing: I’m not on a crusade.”
The aristocrats started trying to back away without attracting attention, while pushing forward the lower-born guards at the same time. The Count had drawn his own weapon, a great ruby-studded broadsword, but there was real fear fighting for control of his face, perhaps the first time it had ever done so.
“I’m on a hunt. And you are the prey. Run now. Or don’t, you’ll. Just. Die. Tired.”
And with that Arrkas gave a perfect wolf howl, and the tide of dark fur surged forward at his call like a breaking damn. There was a collective scream as the army of werewolves met the vampire lines with terrifying force, and the hunt began.
Author’s note: Dear readers, the following was written as the sort of scene that you find in many action movies that introduce a bad-ass character. Imagine this piece as the literary equivalent to the scene in every Terminator movie where Arnie wipes out some poor biker blokes so he can acquire some clothing. As such, don’t expect any stunning philosophical discourses forthcoming. Do expect some good old fashioned carnage though. Enjoy.
Perimeter of Voldaren Manor, Stromkirk, Stensia Providence, Innistrad
The two vampire sentries standing guard at the gate initially thought nothing of a single solitary figure out in the pelting rain at midnight. This was Innistrad after all, and even apart from vampires there were plenty of creatures of the night. If anything, it was something to look at; the two-vampire guard team wouldn’t be relived for another few hours at least. But when the figure approached them through the rain, the mist parting to reveal its identity hidden under a shabby billowing cloak, the guards exchanged looks of relaxed interest. What was this decrepit peasant doing out at such an hour?
“Can we help you?” One of the guards said in a tone of barely-concealed disdain as the figure drew in close.
“I seek an audience with the count.” The cloaked figure rasped.
A grimace came over one of the guard’s flawless alabaster faces, his grip on his halberd tightening. “The Count isn’t seeing any one right now, there is a party going on at present. And even if there wasn’t, he still wouldn’t be seeing the likes of you, day or night.”
The hooded figure hesitated. “I must insist that I be permitted entry.”
The other guard stepped forward, a snarl on his face. This one clearly didn’t get it. “You’d best move along, human. Our palates are far less discerning than our master’s.” He placed a palm out, intent on pushing the peasant away.
Before he could connect, the hooded figure’s arm shot out with remarkable speed, grasping the guard around his helmet. The figure’s arm was huge and covered in scales like a snake’s; the hand almost covered the helm entirely. As the other guard looked on in shock, the grasped guard let go of his halberd, letting it clatter to the cobblestones as he reached up to try and break the grip with both his hands. Amazingly, he couldn’t.
“I’m not a human,” rumbled the figure, and began to squeeze.
The guard instantly began to scream and struggled much harder as the helm swiftly began to buckle under the pressure. Despite his heavy bronze helm and the vampire’s frantic struggles to break the grip, it took the hooded figure only five seconds to utterly crush the guard’s helm (and the guard’s head inside it) like a stale biscuit. The figure let go, and the dead vampire instantly fell to the ground. With a growl, the hooded figure took a step forward, towards the manor’s gate.
The remaining guard stepped to bar the figure’s path with a snarl, baring his pointed fangs in anger at his comrade’s death. Whoever this thing was, it had just earned itself a one-way trip to a shallow grave. Grasping his halberd in a two-handed grip, the guard stepped one pace forward, swinging the axe head in a controlled sideward’s chop. The figure swayed away from the attack, but not enough to stop the blade from landing a glancing blow to its shoulder area. But instead of an arc of blood, there was instead a grating sound, and the figure remained standing, leaving a deep gash through his cloak where the blade had punctured it.
With a snarl the figure lurched forward, the cloak rippling. It grabbed the vampire by both shoulders, picking him up and slamming him against the manor’s exterior wall hard enough to crack the stone. The guard struggled, like his partner before him instinctively dropping his weapon to try and break the grab. It was useless.
“Weak,” The figure spat in contempt.
Pulling them both away from the wall, the figure changed its grip, sliding the struggling vampire bodily into an underarm position as though the battle-armored guard weighed no more than a kitten.
“His strength must be enormous,” thought the guard in panic.
Grasping the vampire guard firmly, the figure rammed the vampire head first into the stone wall like he had a battering ram and was trying to break the wall down. The impact was unheard by any of the denizens of Stormkirk in their beds, as the heavy rain and crackle of thunder muffled the sound.
After the first impact the vampire gave a strident “NO!” after the second there was a gurgling “Please…..”, and after the third there was silence, as the vampire’s head had messily disappeared.
The figure dropped the twitching, now headless body carelessly onto the street, surveying the mess he had made of the guards. Feeling the large cut in his cloak with a clawed finger, the figure shrugged it off, revealing underneath a stocky well built Viashino, his Wurm-hide armor marked by a deep cut to in the shoulder.
As the cloak fluttered down the empty rain slicked street, Arrkas Zek whispered a spell, causing thorny vines to burst from the nearby shrubbery and rend the heavy lock on the Manor’s gate into fragments of torn metal. Arrkas pushed the gate aside, leaving it wide open. Tail twitching from the cold, Arrkas started up the stone drive that led up to Voldaren Manor.
*** *** ***
The party was in full swing inside the Bloodhall. Vampires, in revealing clothes that defied Stensia’s chilly climate, swanned about the chamber their behavior a mixture of chatting, floating above the ground and swilling glasses of the finest vintage human blood the Voldaren’s had on tap. From a few rooms over a five string band played, the music gently wafting over to the party room to the clinking of glasses and gossip dishing.
This atmosphere of refined breeding and fine arts was abruptly ended when a thumping and crashing echoed along on the second floor balcony. One of the vampire higher-ups, floating several meters up in the air where it conversed with others of its kind, pointed to the balcony, surprise written over its heavily-made up features.
“My word! What is that….?”
As the others in the room turned to look, perhaps thinking it was the evening’s entertainment; a burly shape ran and launched itself off the second floor railing. Roaring incoherently, it crashed into the pointing vampire lady, and pushed her underneath its bulk as they fell. With a crunch that buckled floorboards the reptilian gatecrasher landed vampire-lady first on one of the human “blood banks” collared around the room, pulverizing the unlucky vampire and human under his hard impact. As the vampires throughout the room dropped their glasses in shock, Arrkas Zek straightened up from the gory crater. He spread his arms wide and eyed the nearby vampires with battle lust.
“COME ON! WHO WANTS TO GO FIRST!” he bellowed in challenge, goading them.
The vampires hissed in rage, lips pulled back and teeth bared like a pack of hungry wolves. Under all their trappings of finery and class, under all the silken clothes and elaborate titles, they were just as much an animal as Arrkas was. They just couldn’t accept it.
As one, the Vampires from all across the room rushed at him, arms outstretched and sharpened fingernails glinting.
“THAT’S RIGHT! IMPRESS ME!”
Arrkas waited till the last second, and spun around low, tail and fists whipping out. A dozen or so were bowled over with the wind taken out of them, and Arrkas plowed into the others still standing. A wide haymaker punch took out three vampires with the crack of bone, but gave another a chance to close in. The vampire unleashed three lightening-fast jabs, and Arrkas grunted. The fourth punch didn’t land as Arrkas grabbed the offending limb and bit through it with one snap of his crocodile-esque mouth, his razor teeth neatly snapping through bone. Pushing the screeching one-armed vampire away Arrkas snatched another in his hand, marveling at the ease with which he was able to snap the creature’s neck.
Arrkas had run into Vampires on many planes, they seemed to be one of the multiverse’s consistants, like Elves and Goblins. But of the many varieties he’d faced, the Innistrad breed had to be amongst the weakest. They had only double the strength of an ordinary human. Weak. Hardly worth the effort.
“It’s not the most worthy of hunts,” thought the big Viashino as he let one strike a solid blow to his jaw, just to keep things interesting. The uppercut did stagger him, and the vampire who had dealt it leapt forward, keen to press his advantage now that he mistakenly thought he had Arrkas reeling. “but there’s certainly something to be said for outlasting an entire hoard of combatants, of pitting the quality against the quantity. How many Innistrad Vampires is this Jund Viashino worth?” Arrkas mused as he sharply elbowed the advancing vampire dead on, a spray of blood arching past his smiling face. “40? 150? More even?”
Already the Bloodhall was living up to its name, littered with injured, unconscious, dead and dying, and yet more and more vampires surged into the room. God, he loved a challenge. Blood pumping, muscles brimming with energy, Arrkas roared as a Vampire Lordling flew at him, hovering at head height. The Lordling’s feet lashed out like vipers in a series of controlled kicks, forcing Arrkas to cross both his arms to block the worst of the onslaught. The Lordling’s speed was certainly greater than Arrkas’, the Viashino giving ground as he tried to find an opportunity to counter-attack. Arrkas chanced a glance behind him, seeing that he was being backed up against the manor’s wall. The glance cost him, as the Lordling finally penetrated Arrkas’ defense and cracked him around the head with a sweeping kick. The Lordling was too fast, his movements like quicksilver. He couldn’t keep up his defense, it wasn’t working anyway. So Arrkas fell back on a combat trick he had spent his life honing: “If you cannot hope to dodge a blow, grit your teeth and take it. Just make sure to hit the other guy back harder than he can hit you.”
The Vampire hissed with glee as it launched a low kick, dropping a few centimeters to make sure it ducked below his foe’s blocking arms, and this time Arrkas took it without retort, huffing as air left his lungs but nevertheless reaching out and seizing the Lordling’s leg. “ENOUGH!” he raged, swinging the Lordling through the air by the foot and slamming it into the wall like it was a bat. The resulting snap told him that that combatant would not be getting up, perhaps ever again.
After the example he’d made of the Lording Arrkas wouldn’t have been surprised if the Vampires had fled Voldaren Manor for their lives yet, but it was not to be. No less than four Vampires closed in on Arrkas as one, using the combined momentum from their charge to force the Viashino up against the wall, pinning his arms back.
“Quick, finish the beast off! Now, while we have him!” called one Vampire.
While the two burly males each kept an arm pinned with both their own, the two females moved in for the kill: one producing a jeweled dagger, the other using her sharpened finger nails. Growling, Arrkas headbutted one as she closed in, pitching her backwards with a smashed nose. The arm holders redoubled their efforts to immobilize Arrkas, pushing his arms back against the wall as hard as they could. The female with the sharpened nails lunged in, and Arrkas stopped trying to free his arms. Trusting to the strength of the vampires holding him, he launched his legs up, snapping them around the female vampire’s midsection and drawing her in. With a flex of his powerful leg muscles, honed by rigorous workouts just for such an unlikely occasion, Arrkas snapped her spine. The look of shock on her face, frozen in the moment of death, was something he’d remember for some time.
But Arrkas didn’t have time for that right now, he had to get the two vampires off him, before more came in to take advantage of his grappled position. Turning his head to look at one struggling vampire Arrkas drew in a great lungful of air. The vampire grinned.
“What are you going to do? Blow on me?” he smirked.
Arrkas bellowed, releasing a primal roar primarily intended to generate noise right next to the vampire’s head. The vampire screamed in pain, his hands flying up to cover his now bleeding ears. Vampires had superhuman hearing, but such sharpened senses were vulnerable to being overloaded, a fact Arrkas knew from countless hunts. One arm now free, Arrkas ignored the deafened Vampire stumbling around and grabbed the remaining Vampire by the neck, spinning once and using the momentum to throw him bodily into a nearby fireplace. The vampire’s fine silk garments caught ablaze in an instant, and the vampire’s writhing form disappeared in a ball of fire.
The deafened vampire was stumbling around, trying to quell the ringing in his head. Like a shell-shocked soldier he gave no thought to his surroundings until he felt Arrkas’ huge presence looming up behind him. The vampire turned to face the threat only to receive a knee to the gut, knocking all the wind out of him. Thus winded, he was unable to dodge as Arrkas’ tail swiped out, sweeping his legs out from under him and sending him crashing to the carpeted floor. “One all-natural remedy for an earache, coming up leech,” chuckled Arrkas to himself, and he stomped hard, collapsing the vampire’s cranium like a dried out bug.
The room was finally empty of vampires. Well, living ones at any rate. Arrkas cracked his neck, taking stock of his body. He couldn’t feel anything of concern, though he’d have bruises the next day. Putting a hand into his cavernous mouth, Arrkas felt around gingerly. A second later with a slight grunt of discomfort, he’d snapped off three teeth loosened in the fight. He’d grow new ones in a few days.
Arrkas looked around, scanning to see if there was anything he could use as a weapon. Fighting bare-knuckle against these vermin was fun and all, but Arrkas knew the Count would be a far greater challenge. He needed something that would complement his reach, but which would shatter into a good sharp point after a few solid swings…..there! One of the lavishly ornate chairs had splintered during in the fight, and an off table leg lay apart from the rest, one end reduced to a wicked point. It would make for a fine stake. Arrkas stomped over to the chair, reached over and picked up the leg. Good, it was heavy and solid, well weighted for swinging and……